Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Toxicity of Information Paradox

I propose that if you want a simple step to a higher form of life, as distant from the animal as you can get, then you may have to denarrate, that is, shut down the television set, minimize time spent reading newspapers, ignore the blogs. Train your reasoning abilities to control your decisions; nudge System 1 (the heuristic or experiential system) out of the important one. Train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the empirical. This insulation from the toxicity of the world will have an additional benefit: it will improve your well-being. Also, bear in mind how shallow we are with probability, the mother of all abstract notions. You do not have to do much more in order to gain a deeper understanding of things around you. Above all, learn to avoid “tunneling.”

Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan (132)


Why is the toxicity of information paradox a paradox? Simple: information and facts are not knowledge. As we search and act in a world that contains more information than ever, we must confront this paradox daily. Yet, indeed, more information is often extremely valuable. Lying, dishonesty, and manipulation often hide information in order to deceive others - transparency benefits us in this situation. Second opinions in medicine and health endeavors often prove critical to our chances of restoring our wellness: more information is not, in some cases, a bad thing. Clearly, there appears to be an information filtering balancing act that we must engage - a balancing act that Nassim Taleb refers to in the paragraph above.

The practical problem arises when we move to act upon this information: acting requires us to "connect the dots" at some level, at least tentatively and speculatively, to make predictions about our ecologies. So, clearly, how we structure and conduct these connections proves more and more critical to operating effectively in a world of ever-expanding information.

This is where the entropy perspective proves fruitful: the entropy front carries us far. Navanit tipped me to a wonderful view of entropy: "diversification across as many scales and dimensions as possible." This view connects the thermodynamic and infodynamic perspectives nicely as well. In the hunt for knowledge, Levy flights (as I will expound upon in my next post on tunneling) serve as excellent hedges against uncertainty by maximizing entropy under fixed path-length constraints - this type of hunting pattern diversifies our searching and acting across as many scales and dimensions as possible, subject to our constraints (a physician searching for a diagnosis, facing the constraint of ordering tests and procedures parsimoniously, for instance). From this perspective, maximization of entropy helps us "factor for the invisible," by engaging many small bets - tinkering captures this modus operandi as well (gain as much exposure to the envelope of serendipity as possible). Interestingly, I read comments that spontaneous order maximizes entropy as well, which bolsters the epistemology behind bottom-up, undirected trial-and-error experimentation.

As local animals living within a global world, our condition (and well-being, as Nassim states above) in the Information Age improves when we start to reflect on the toxicity information paradox in our personal lives. In this light, increasing information, at some point, overwhelms our brain storage capacities, which pushes us to reduce; reduction creates niches and micro-information communities (these abound on the web), within which people produce ever-detailed information about these corners of our world, further reaching and expanding into the possible scales and dimensions. For instance, patient-created illness communities (for Lupus, for example) are places for people to share the details of their experiences - these generate ever-more information, expanding, in a diversified manner, pushing the limits on our world's information content. In this manner, it does seem that our impulse to reduce in light of limited capacity is both a symptom of expanding information / entropy, and then, a generator as well, which by increasing distributional entropy through diversification across scales and dimensions increases kurtosis along the way - turning more leafs in the process, uncovering the unknown.

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