A problem with information

800px-BigBrother

For the past 30 or so years, the production of information – just as such – bytes, bits, digitized texts and images – has produced considerable wealth for, well, at least a few people; and has immersed us in a culture that seems information saturated – but not to the point that tons new information can’t be produced and distributed rapidly through media designed for this very purpose.

Because the economics of the new culture of information has produced wealth, many remain lolled into the pleasing fantasy that mastery of the technology that generates information distribution media – and so integrally that it also produces much of the information distributed – produces actual mastery over the culture they participate in. That is, they come under the illusion that they are playing for power – direct influence on peoples’ lives and futures, and the political realities thus involved. But – that’s not true.

We have developed a considerable ideology privileging the place (and economics) of information within our culture, to the extent that few, even among the more educated, see that information, simply as such, has a problematic value, logically speaking. Primarily, an informative expression does not bear within it an necessary structure assuring its valid position in a proposition, and hence no inner standard by which to determine its truth. If I am simply told, “there are a lot of pink elephants in the Arctic,” I am surely being informed, but of what? If I have little knowledge or experience with elephants, I might be persuaded to assume I am being informed as to the nature of elephants and their natural habitat. So now I ‘know that elephants are pink and they come from the Arctic? It certainly sounds as if the sentence is a proposition; but floating around in a blog-post loaded with nonsense memes inherited from other questionable source (but in this hypothesis I don’t know that), it seems to be a casual reference to an accepted fact about the world, which I can’t immediately verify in the course of my reading, possibly because it’s off-topic: ‘Just as there are a lot of pink elephants in the arctic, so we know President Obama was born in Kenya.’ If I am not sympathetic to Obama, I may simply nod my head and move on. Now I have two bits of information, neither of which I have confirmed in any way, but I may feel better about my own political opinions (and the anxieties producing them).

But I am writing this because I assume that my own readers do know that elephants are not pink, don’t naturally occur (in great numbers) in the Arctic, and are aware that President Obama was not born in Kenya. In other words, I assume that contextually my writing ‘there are a lot of pink elephants in the Arctic,’ is is grounded, not in the suggestion that there are many pink elephants in the Arctic, or whether this is even a question to be pursued here at all – it is an example expression only. Exactly because it is not presented as information, it indicates a standard by which the truth of the present discussion can, at some point, be determined. The context provides that standard. In the context, arguments are implicated (if only enthymemically), and these can be reformulated to determine the truth-value of their claims. As these arguments are reformulated for that purpose, every expression can be re-coded logically as a proposition to determine, not only its truth-value, but the reason for its presentation in the context of the discussion. Now we know we can say that there are no naturally occurring elephants in the Arctic, and no elephants are pink, and the reason this statement was presented here was purely as example of information without truth value. These are statements that have propositional values, because of their context, and the reader is welcome to verify or falsify them before continuing.

But the mere expression itself, ‘there are a lot of pink elephants in the Arctic,’ gives us nothing. But it certainly appears to be information.

The problem with the current fad for a culture (and economics) of information is that the ancient discussions concerning the value, validity, truthfulness, and usefulness of any given bit of information, has been squashed. None of this is supposed to matter anymore, none of it important. Give us information – more and more information – and accumulating it, will we not master the world?

Maybe not. Do certain exercises or diets increase female breast size? I don’t know how to answer that question. It doesn’t concern me, I have never asked after this matter, I don’t know any methods of verification of such an assertion. Yet I am recurrently informed that such is the case by advertisers and infomercials, every time I visit the internet or watch late night TV.

The status of knowledge in the era of information technologies, has not been defined. To ‘know’ that there are certain companies that will sell me ‘information’ concerning how to increase my female breasts (which I seem to have misplaced, along with the male-potency medicine my ex-girlfriend used to take), seems to me to be a waste of good mental storage space.

Knowledge is not power. Power is power – power is irreducibly concrete. The making of socio-political reality, or maneuvering within that reality, is not dependent of knowledge per se, but on the rapidity of response to opportunities or to threats. In some cultures, it also helps to have a big gun handy; in America it helps to have a lot of money.

In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother’s police and inquisitors make sure that the populace accept as true all the information they are given by the State. (‘War is Peace,’ and every day brings new victories.) Presumably, all are equally ‘informed’ about everything (allowable) there is to ‘know’ – but no one knows any truth or fact in particular, as something one can ascertain and affirm. Even Big Brother, assuming he exists (the society could function just as well if he were but personification of the Party), would not need to know anything concrete or real. So everyday brings new information – and never a day comes when anything is known. ‘War is peace,’ and ‘hate is love,’ – yet the unhappiness remains.

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