Information Theory

Paywalls still defend the gated web–i.e., access to peer-reviewed research. Educational institutions pay millions of dollars to database vendors like Elsevier to provide access to this information for their students. That said, there are now many open access journals that provide free access to peer-reviewed articles. And tools like Google Scholar, Academia Edu, Linked In, and ResearchGate have democratized access to information.

Not only do people have unprecedented access to information, their relationship to information has changed.

Information is now ubiquitous–and filtered.
You no longer need to hike miles and miles to visit a library like The Imperial Library of Constantinople nor do you have to worry the library will be burned by Crusaders before you get there.

Instead, on a daily basis you are bombarded with information.

So, what do you do? You set up defenses! You set your phone to give you the latest news from your favorite publications–and receive it all in real time. You bookmark favorite websites. You subscribe to podcasts and audiobooks on topics of particular interest. Your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram track your interests and pitch associated articles and ads. Perhaps you become so adept at filtering information that you successfully create an information silo that deletes any information that challenges or refutes what you believe to be true on a topic.

Given information is now ubiquitous, you might hope people might use it to make more informed decisions. Ironically, however, this may not be the case.

Postmodern theorists, from the 1950s to the present, challenged the possibility of objective truth. They demonstrated ways the lenses people use to examine information shapes that information. They re-examined meta-narratives and noted how those theories were grounded in the bodies, lives, and historical periods of their creators. Skepticism was prized over belief. Question who benefits from an interpretation and how that interpretation reifies existing power structures. 

CNN and other 24 x 7 cable news stations put the spotlight on human flaws. And there has been a breakdown in authority. People who held positions of authority and respect were caught being bad actors.

Postmodernism and human foibles have led some rhetoricians and cultural critics to argue that changes in the information ecology have created a Post-Truth era. An emerging term, the connotations/derivations of post-truth (and fake news) are hotly disputed. But for many the idea is that there is no truth, just argument.

At least in the U.S, there are good reasons for not trusting statements of fact by their leaders and politicians. Examples:

  • In 1988, President H. W. Bush promised “Read my lips no new taxes,” yet he agreed to levy new taxes to offset budget problems. 
  • In 1998, President Clinton earnestly promised “ I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false,” and yet the allegations proven to be true. 
  • In the 2003s, President W. Bush launched a war against Iraq because he had proof Iraq had an ongoing WMD, weapons of mass destruction, program. No WMDs were found.
  • President Trump is widely regarded to be the least truthful president in history. The Washington Post computed that he told 18 lies a day in 2018 ( Kessler 2018) 

Of course, there’s nothing new about politicians repeating talking points that appeal to pathos ad nauseam regardless of the veracity of the talking points. From the Sophists to Machiavelli, rhetoricians and politicians have been preoccupied with persuasion. Telling entertaining stories while ignoring the facts or repeating a lie so often you hope it’ll be accepted as truth over time are pretty prosaic persuasive moves. Throughout history, politicians have appealed to emotions, tribalism, and the economic self interests of the majority voting block.

What may be new, however, is that people may be less willing to assume any information is factual. 

Information is interactive
Tools like wikis enable people to interact globally to coauthor documents. Discussion tools tied to texts permit ongoing discussions about the text. Social tagging tools likewise encourage dialogue and reflection. Rather than a “thing” archived in immutable stone, information is a conversation. Rather than the last word, information is an evolving discussion.

Information is no longer produced from the one to the many but from the many to the many.
Nearly everyone can write for a global audience. Blogs, podcasts, websites, wikis–these media are nearly free and can potentially reach millions of people. Thus, information is not vetted by teams of editors and copyedited by professionals.

Information is now produced by bots and analytics.
You can no longer be sure the people you meet online are really people. Technologies are not ideologically neutral. The prejudices and incentives of its creators  are woven into mathematical equations that drive the bots and workflows.. Bots and analytics, driven by AI (artificial intelligence), pitches Fake News and advertisements based on your digital footprint. Perhaps they score your potential and define your future via national tests (e.g., Educational Testing Services or Pearson Education).

5G and the Internet of Things will create complex information ecologies where your movements and thoughts are tracked throughout your lives. Analytics from this information flow will facilitate metacognition and goal planning (as well, perhaps, a bit of well justified paranoia, particularly in regards to health records)..

Information is produced via different media and the affordances of those media influence the message
Technologies have affordances. For instance, on Twitter affords brevity: users can now send messages as long as 280 characters, although 50 characters remain the norm. In contrast, the average Wikipedia article is 320 words. Snapchat allows you send a photo message that is timed to  disappears after a set period of time, which has resulted in people sending stuff they wouldn’t normally share.

New technologies may create new behaviors. For example, past U.S. presidents have worked with senior white house experts to conduct foreign policy. Only after many exchanges and negotiations with senior staffers have the leaders of other countries met with the U.S. president. But now President Trump uses Twitter to announce foreign policy. His tweet about the U.S. getting out of Syria so irritated the Director of the State Department, that he resigned in protest.

Information is expected to have a shorter shelf life
In The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman, a scientometrics (i.e., an expert about the evolution of scientific thought), found it took 45 years for medical researchers to reject incorrect facts about cirrhosis and hepatiti. Thus, Arbesman argued people’s innate confirmation bias–the tendency to look for evidence that supports your thinking and reject other information–has real world medical results: fatalities and lives of pain and suffering that might be otherwise avoidable.

Additional articles on Information-theory:

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