Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Infodynamics: information, entropy, kurtosis, and the human condition

If you have not stumbled upon or heard of Fractal Press yet (click here), I highly suggest taking a moment to read this interview: Joe Wikert asked Navanit Arakeri questions about the Fractal Press philosophy (click here to read).

Here is a piece of the interview, to illustrate the deep thinking behind this marvelous publishing venture:
NA: The general idea is to build multi-author books based on valuable existing content in the blogging community. Our approach is heavily inspired by Art de Vany and Nassim Taleb. The idea first came up when we approached the question: "What can we do if we don't know anything?" So it was essentially a risk-management issue and the problem of acting under uncertainty. Fractal Press is one instantiation of the general framework that emerges from studying this question.

Positive-skew (low-downside, potentially high-upside), massive diversification, and power-law (long-tail) environments were what we were looking for. I initially pitched the idea as "Fallible Publishing" that involved diversification across as many dimensions as possible (multi-author books) and benefiting from the massive bottom-up tinkering going on in the blogosphere.

As a fellow bottom-up tinkerer, I have a lot of respect for the Fractal Press approach to publishing. A few days ago, the ever-insightful Navanit Arakeri (here) of Fractal Press (here) composed a brilliant, far-reaching essay on entropy, information, and kurtosis, and he posted it on the Fractal Press blog (here).

Click here to read Navanit's essay, "Distributional Entropy, Information, and Fat-Tails."

As an exercise, stop here, read Navanit's essay, and then return to the rest of this post.

As a fellow scientist, I have spent some time trying to poke holes in this essay; so far, I have probed, but I have not punctured the ice - I will keep probing and poking (the nature of science calls for it). In the meantime, I have been reflecting on the implications of Navanit's essay, and, in response, I composed the following flow of thoughts - an essay:

Infodynamics: The Laws that Govern Cyber Space and Time

With the advent of the Information Age (via computers, lasers, the internet, and others?), the second "Big-Bang" (or third, if you count the Industrial Revolution) created an entirely new texture to our complex world: the laregely invisible, immaterial (intangible) world of information. This explosion of information content into our environments pushed us further into extremistan, with the information domains of our universe expanding rapidly through cyber space and time. Though this Big-Bang parallels the explosion that kick-started our universe in the first place, the Information Age explosion does not obey the laws of gravity: information exhibits scalability, lacking the upper bounds that constrain our physical energy world. Thus, the First Law of Infodynamics is clear: the information content of our global system of networks is increasing (every added blog, website, online news information center, and email feeds this explosive fire). The First Law of Thermodynamics limits the energy content of our universe, proposing that energy cannot be created nor destroyed; it can only change forms (e = mc^2 ... energy and matter, the duality of the physical, material texture of our world). This constraint does not appear to apply to the world of Infodynamics, a dynamic that carries far-reaching implications for the future ecology of our lives. Though, a powerful concept emerges when we conceptualize information as entropy of a system, as Shannon (click here) has done masterfully. Information as entropy parallels the Second Law of Thermodynamics - the entropy of our universe is increasing. The Second Law of Infodynamics states that the information content of our universe is increasing and thus the entropy of our universe is increasing as a result. 

In analyzing the human condition, it is clear that the Second Law of Infodynamics possesses far more serious and robust impact on our lives than does the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Given that we are foreigners in the Information Age and that our minds and bodies are fit for our ancestral environments, the rapidly increasing information content of our world threatens our health, lifestyles, social interactions, and communities in profound ways (practically, for our lives and wellness, the effects of the Second Law of Thermodynamics pale in comparison to those of the increasing informational entropy world that we operate within - Nassim Taleb understands this deeply - just Google, "extremistan"). As new information continually emerges out of thin air (primarily via the internet), this increased information content increases the entropy of our world and, as a result, exacerbates the kurtosis of the underlying distributions that describe the complex, recursive textures of our world - the toxicity of information paradox in action. As informational entropy increases, our brains cannot handle this rapid expansion, and we are moved to reduce: to consolidate, categorize, and tunnel. This produces fat-tails and power-law unfairness in social status (we can only hold a small number of "great" actors and actresses in our heads, same with authors, etc. = the "winner-take-all" effects). This rapid shift to extremistan via fat-tail emergence due to ever-expanding entropy in the informational ether of our world makes the toxicity of information an increasingly important issue; yet, it only looks to be getting worse. 

Luckily, the Evolutionary Fitness framework, as Art DeVany has developed magnificently (click here), is one excellent hedge against this toxicity of information paradox that provides us humans with a platform, as well as tools and support, to utilize this framework to create (carve out) spaces within our modern environments that allow us to tap into our ancestral lifestyles and rhythms (via affective mimicry, diet, exercise, and sleep patterns, for instance), and creating these space, I suspect, will only become more and more important for our health, wellness, wealth, and happiness as we progress into the future, confronting the effects of the First and Second Laws of Infodynamics along the way. 

Additionally, the hunt for knowledge within a rapidly changing and evolving information ecology, I suspect, will benefit more and more from Levy-flight approaches, as the Levy strategy acts as a hedge against tunneling: intense searching within one niche of an information domain, then backing out and moving, via a Levy flight, to another domain, maintaining generalism and diversified searching and acting balancing acts along the way.

Navanit and I are now considering whether our limited brain storage capacities generate or are symptoms of increasing informational entropy. For the generator / symptom consideration, I wonder if these are, in practice, inseparable; they could be inseparabilities, as Nassim Taleb has coined (referring to cases like the nature vs. nurture discriminations). I am thinking of meme-style feedback loops that could skew the distribution further, in a positive-feedback manner: I am imagining the creation of a new celebrity gossip website or blog - it increases entropy by adding toxic information, but this information type and presentation is fat-tailed: it then receives hits by people and moves to the future creation and display / spewing of information in this manner.

I suspect that - given the fact that we are very adaptive animals and that epigenetic mechanisms appear to show that our neuronal (cellular) plasticity is far greater than we had imagined - the bounds on our brain storage capacities are not well-known, but in our day-to-day lives, they certainly exist (email floods many workers' minds in bureaucratic organizations, inhibiting their abilities to think in new and reflective ways - the "Blackberry syndrome").

Needless to say, the toxicity of information paradox is critical to understanding the human condition in the Information Age. In my next post, I will explore its implications via an essay on tunneling. Thanks for reading.

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