Not all information is equal
April 1, 2012
And some information is more equal than other but in today’s connected world the difference is becoming increasingly opaque. Advances in technology have eroded information filters that had historically allowed the consumption of information in a manner consistent with our ability to process it. Failure to differentiate meaningful information from informational background noise facilitates the formation of conclusions and opinions based on faulty information. This process can lead to the proliferation of positive feedback loops (echo chamber effect) that further limits our ability to effectively prioritize and appropriately act on issues facing us as a society.
In the past, information we received, evaluated and ultimately used to guide our actions had gone though one or more filtering processes by the time it reached us. In some cases the filter was the editorial review process of a newspaper. In many cases the filter was simply the time it took the information to reach us.
Consider print media. An editor or publisher with a finite number of column inches for news had to ensure the information was content rich, accurate and meaningful. A reporter couldn’t simply conceive a story and have it appear in the next morning’s edition. The minimal standard for corroborating facts in an investigative article was to have two reliable, credible and independent sources.
The time it took to verify the content of a story was extended by the limitations of the distribution channel. A story that wasn’t written, verified, edited and put to bed by midnight would likely not be on the streets the following morning. By the time the news reached the reader there would have been hours, maybe days, between the event and the knowledge of it. Time allows a more complete digestion of ingested information and tends to obtund reflexive reactions. The iterative cycle of written discourse lends itself to a more considered expression of thoughts.
A non-trivial factor driving the filtering process is the cost of dissemination. A print publisher would weigh the value of a story based on its merits and decide if it was important enough to invest the resources to distribute. In many cases reporters had to vigorously defend their articles to ensure they received some of those valuable column inches. How many times did those reporters hear the words, ‘It’s too long.”, forcing them to revisit their article and distill it down to its essential components.
When considering the nature of communication in the print era it is relevant to note that information sources were limited. For many, there may have been only a single newspaper in their community. If they were fortunate there may have been several that offered different perspectives. This limitation tended to focus the conversation on a few, well defined topics that had the effect of minimizing the peripheral noise that confronts us today.
The volume of background noise increased with the advent of broadcast media; first radio and then television. No longer were there the constraints of a fixed number of column inches that forced a methodical process of gleaning the essential truths from a story. There were still editors to please but unshackled from a physical limitation of print space more stories were disseminated. The delay between the inception of a story and its dissemination was radically shortened.
Radio, and subsequently television, soon became round the clock operations. The filters of due to physical limitations and distribution channel delays essentially evaporated in a very short time. As these filters were being removed the distribution foot print of individual outlets was being expanded. In a town with one daily newspaper suddenly there were multiple radio stations offering information. Well researched stories gradually gave way to “breaking news” and live coverage where the listener experienced the event as if they were there. While in some cases that may be desirable it may be overlooked that it is often the discretion of one person to define breaking news or whether an event should be covered live. The editorial filters are less severe when a mobile unit can be on the scene and broadcasting in real time. Although initially innocuous, this unilateral discretion of coverage evolved into editorial policies and decisions intended to advance a point of view.
Although unfortunate, it seems that human nature is to respond to these editorial policies not with objectivity and critical thinking but with a like attracts like mentality. The new media audience found it more comfortable to listen to reports from stations that reflected their views. As their audience increased, the news outlets responded by shaping their already biased editorial policies to satisfy their listeners. It is a classic case of a positive feedback loop that was the beginning of the information cocoons and echo chambers that permeate today’s society.
As the internet evolved and as social media has grown this effect has become extreme. The amount of available information from websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and untold outer sources has become virtually unlimited. The vast majority of these information sources are devoid of any filters. This post is a good example. It is being written by one person, there are no editors, only spell check. Although likely to be read by only one or two people, with one click this posting will be available instantaneously throughout the world. Because all the information looks the same, people fail to differentiate informational noise from information.
It seems that as the effort required to share a thought or idea decreases so does its value. Have humans evolved to the point that we can do our own filtering of information to separate the wheat from the chaff? I think not. That would require active reading, a willingness to seek out alternative perspectives and above all, critical thinking.
We see the results of this adulterated information in common daily events. Consider the daily obsession with the stock market and the wide swings from computer driven transactions and day traders. There was a time when an investment in the stock market was a thoughtful process of investing in a company. It took time to do the research and individual traders typically learned their stock rice in the back pages of the daily newspaper. There were many filters in place that tended to reward a value based approach to investing for the long term.
Also amusing is the interest and sometimes frank puzzlement in the wide swings of election polls by political pundants. Can there be any doubt that the variation is due to respondents having so much contradictory information coupled with an unwillingness or incapacity to critically evaluate it?
Although humans have been walking the earth and evolving for some 4 million years, linguists tell us that spoken language appeared 50,000 to 100,000 years ago . During the vast majority of this time speech has evolved in the relatively static construct of small groups and with no technology or mass distribution. Our information interpretative capacity is still largely a function of this evolutionary background. As a species, our ability to process information has fallen far behind our ability to create and disseminate it. In a sense our brains are still wired for communication in small groups or clans but our technology has made that format increasingly rare.
The consequences of our inability to appropriately process information are very real. Improperly processed information leads to either polarized positions or to paralysis. Consider a few of the big issues facing us as a world society: global warming, peak oil , world hunger, war in Sudan, bigotry, and misogyny. Unfortunately there is no shortage of items that could be added to that list but at the end of the day all those topics compete with the pandering of politicians, reality television, computer games and 24×7 sports, just to name a few.
Until we, as a society, gain the ability to recognize informational chaff our capacity to make informed decisions will continue to degrade leading us to a state of stagnation and eventually decay. The solution is the adoption of a simple process of informational winnowing: read, think critically, act. Although a simple solution I suspect its widespread adoption will be elusive.
 Lieberman, P. (2007). “The evolution of human speech: Its anatomical and neural bases”. Current Anthropology 48 (1): 39–66. doi:10.1086/509092.
 Robert L. Hirsch, Roger Bezdek, Robert Wendling (2005). “Peaking Of World Oil Production:Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management”