New Civilization News: Connected Information    
 Connected Information24 comments
picture 18 Jul 2004 @ 10:15, by Flemming Funch

I occasionally wake up sweating, thinking I've forgotten to do my paper route, and undelivered newspapers are stacking up somewhere. When awake, the feeling gets replaced with a vague feeling that there's something somewhere that I've forgotten, and it is important. Of course I haven't had a paper route for, oh, close to 30 years, so it probably isn't that. Except for that I'm not totally sure if I handed in my resignation, so maybe there really is 20 tons of bundles of old newspapers standing there, and a lot of angry customers waiting for their morning paper. How do I know?

But the feeling is quite close to how I relate to many kinds of information. You know, there's something I should know about, and that I should be doing something about, but currently it is disconnected from what I actually do, and I don't quite remember. But it might come back and bite me at any moment, at which time the *information* will clearly show that I'm an idiot who's not doing what I'm supposed to. Until then, the information might well be hiding somewhere where I'm not looking. So, where should I look to find all the information I should be aware of?

Paying bills is a bit like that for me. Relations with public authorities certainly is. I have the sneaking suspicion there's probably some big things I should be doing that I'm not, like paying taxes or having the proper licences, permits and immigration papers. I have some vague ideas. But, I look around me, and there's nothing in my environment that tells me much about any of those things. It takes some hard work to go and track down the information I'm supposed to have, and then figuring out what to do with it. And I never know if I got the whole picture. Yet, there's no excuse for not knowing the law. Meaning, there are 10s of thousands of pieces of information I really should know about, many of which could put me in jail if I didn't act correctly in accordance with them. Oh, most other people don't know them either, but they somehow manage to get the most vital pieces, and then they look around themselves and see what other people do, and they figure they can't go all wrong if they do roughly the same.

My point is that information is typically something disconnected and abstract. Data certainly is. It is some kind of extract representation of something, which possibly might be real. Information is when we put some of that data together so it seems to say something coherent.

I get a bill in the mail. That's a datum, or maybe several. If I study it and discover that, aha, I'm supposed to pay this before the 10th of next month, and this is the amount, then that is information. At that point it is still unconnected to everything else. Who says I'll remember that next month, or that I have any money at that time? Where do I put this thing so I find it again? Well, if I really think it is terribly important, I make some kind of system to remind me. I make a folder for that creditor, I write it in the calendar, I try to estimate my budget over the next month. Of course, you say, everybody does that. But it is not that *of course*. It is just that you're used to living in an information world where things like bills and deadlines appear to be real. Even though they're disjoined and often inconsistent abstractions, several levels removed from anything real.

If you call up Microsoft for tech support, based on some odd problem you have with Windows, they'll usually end up telling you that the answer is there, plain and clear, in technical note number 17536, and you're a bit of an idiot because you didn't know that. They have their information asses covered, just like the law. It is your fault you don't know.

To be fair, most open source mailing lists work like that too. You ask a question, and there will always be somebody quite willing to tell you how stupid you are because there's some file somewhere that has the answer on line 514. And you didn't know. It is a bit of crime to not have processed and tabulated all the information in the world.

In a society like the french, often things aren't said explicitly, but it is assumed that you'll somehow know. The school doesn't necessarily give you a piece of paper that says when vacation is over, because it is assumed that everybody knows. If you apply for being admitted into a new school, they might not even bother to tell you if it was accepted or not, because you somehow ought to figure that out by yourself. The business world works like that too in many ways. You're sort of supposed to guess what is going on, even though the information isn't readily available, and your boss isn't talking. You've gotta be well networked, drawing on an extensive intelligence network when you do anything. You're supposed to know things, but there might not be anybody who tells you exactly how. And the available data itself might not help much.

There's an implicitly idea somewhere that data adds up to information. Which potentially might be structured into knowledge. And if you then really internalize it, it might become wisdom.

It is a questionable model. It assumes that the direction is from disjoined snippets of data towards something more integrated and useful. Who says it works like that? Nature doesn't seem to me to work like that. There nothing quite equivalent to data out there. Nature includes lots of systems that have partipating elements that send messages to each other. A plant or animal that is trying to procreate often sends out millions of little seeds or pollen or eggs. And there are millions of ways they might get activated. DNA is certainly information, but it is replicated billions of times. There are billions of ways that DNA might hook up and produce the next generation. Billions of signals with certain receptors might be met with billions of possible counter-parts that have matching receptors. It certainly doesn't depend on one little piece of information hidden once somewhere, which somebody has to remember to go look for.

That is where our informational systems tend to go wrong. We put something in some suitable place, and then one is just supposed to know where to find it. And, oh, one can make all sorts of reminders that makes it easier. Like, if on the web a piece of information is stored in some place, other sites can link to it, and people can make bookmarks, and they can write a little note for themselves to remember where it was. And you can go search in a search engine. And that helps, and somehow most things work out. But it still seems vastly inferior in some way to the relatively effortless manner information is used in the natural world. Our systems depend on somebody remembering what to look for, at the right time, and discovering the right context. It is very fragile.

Just like our technology, which is built on similar models. One little wire is disconnected or one little comma in the wrong place in a program, and the car doesn't start or the space probe misses Saturn. Our constructions often have many single points of failure. Nature generally doesn't.

We can learn, I'm sure, from nature, how to help things link up more often, and more reliably. Of course what I really want is for the information I need to be available exactly when I need it. I want the information to come to me at the right time, and I want to not have to analyze large amounts of data to find out what is going on. I want to be reminded of my bill at a reasonable time to pay it, and I want the expectation of having to pay it to be wired to my budget somehow. I would want to know of course, the moment I try to buy something else frivolous that it would mean that I couldn't pay that bill next week. Well, really I'd rather not have a bill. I'd rather that my economic metabolism took care of the needed energy exchanges, continuously.

A lot of our information use carries with it the phenomenon of "Now the cake should have been in the oven for 1/2 hour". You know, you get to a certain point in the recipe and it tells you that there's something you should have done at an earlier stage, but you weren't aware of it at that stage. I might put a reminder in my calendar to pay a bill, and when it rings, I will remember that I should have made sure I had money to pay it. Which I might not have done.

Disjoined information doesn't necessarily add up. There's no guarantee it adds up to meaningful information and useful knowledge. Just because you spread a lot of screws and other mechanical parts around on the floor there's no guarantee you can construct a refrigerator from it. If I started with a working refrigerator and dismantled it, then I likely could. But independently aggregated bits and pieces, no. And most of our information is like that. It doesn't come from a dismantled whole, but rather from unrelated bits and pieces, which you're then supposed to put together into a whole. Which is next to impossible.

We are pretty good at managing anyway. Despite that we live in a sea of disjoined information, we're pretty good at creating some kind of network between them and making useful things happen. We do it in a rather primitive low-tech kind of way, maybe. Most countries have an enormous and ridiculously complicated system of law. Most people, including the politicians who wrote the laws, and the lawyers and judges who interpret them, do not at all have an overview of what it adds up to, and many laws contradict each other. So, for normal people the answer is usually to look around you and guess at what the laws seem to be. Stop for red lights, don't steal other people's stuff, etc. And the lawyers will just search for laws that support a particular point when the need arises. We find a pragmatic way of dealing with it, in the face of the impossibility of knowing what the laws actually say in total. So what do we really know, if the pieces are scattered all over, and we're just barely coping?
"In what sense is a thing known if five hundred people each know one constituent of it and nobody knows the whole? Or again; what if this truth has a thousand constituents and half of them are not known to anyone, but only stored in libraries? What if all of them only exist in libraries? Is it enough that somebody knows how to look them up if they should ever be needed? Indeed is it enough that this person should have access to a system which will look them up? Does the enquirer even have to understand the questions which these truths answer?" - Mary Midgley (Wisdom, Information and Wonder: what is knowledge for? 1989)
Is that really the best we can do? Can't it all connect better? Well, one possibility is a structured semantic web. If all information is meticulously categorized and related with all other information. Possibly in some huge all-encompassing hierarchy. I don't know how likely or possible or even desirable that is. Another possibility is making everything easier to find, and to constantly look for matches for everything. That's more like nature's way, I think. You put everything that needs to be remembered out in loads of redundant copies. And then loads of little pieces are constantly looking for matches to what they're looking for. You know, a Synchronicity Engine of some kind.

There's still some major key missing, though. We need a paradigm shift that takes us from the overwhelming complexity of scattered information to a world where things might again be simple, but at a new level. You know, you're hungry, there's an apple on the tree in front of you, so you eat the apple, and you feel good. That kind of simplicity. You're tired and you sleep. But while at the same time being globally connected with a vastly bigger network of people and information. Rediscover the simplicity in a higher order of complexity. I have no doubt that it is there. And if we don't find it, it is probably because we still address information complexity the wrong way.


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24 comments

18 Jul 2004 @ 11:25 by ov : Connected Information
Ming, it appear to me that once again you are looking for a software module that can be used to connect you with the information that you need, when you need it. Someway to filter through all the noise in the noosphere and throttle that stream down so you can take a comfortable drink rather than having your lips ripped off by a firehose. I've found that the organic cpu models work best, the ones with two legs that can walk between busy intersection points. Where you can ask a quick question and get a quick response from the one person that knows what you want, without all the noise of everybody having to contribute their comments as well.

In the everyday real world of the matrix I have found that wifes work best for paying the bills. My male friends would bring home the money, get an allowance and be allowed to play a bit, but the wife spent the money and that was responsibly done by them having them pay bills first and then only spending on themselves what was left over, and the more efficient they were with expenses the more money they had left to themselves.

Sometimes when a person is busy changing the world, or working on million dollar deals, it is easy to brush aside the $50 speeding ticket, or a $30 phone bill as being unimportant just because it is so small and trivial in comparison but then it comes back to bite hard. The matrix does not like to be ignored and wants you to spend most of your time thinking about 'it' rather than something of your own choosing.  



18 Jul 2004 @ 12:03 by Tim Rowe @81.109.241.105 : Synchronicity Engine
What a great idea. God knows (literally, probably) what the algorithm would be for that :)  


18 Jul 2004 @ 12:16 by ming : Pragmatic advice
See, one usually ends up with good and pragmatic advice like that. Let you wife handle the bills. Or an assortment of systems people find useful. Put them in a shoebox, get this or that program, color-code them, etc. All of which is good, and maybe that would work for me too. And, yes, asking the right person will take care of many things. Asking at all makes a big difference.

But it is still basically that we find a system for dealing with the 10 items that are most close and most pressing. Where really there's a billion items we don't get around to dealing with, because they aren't clear or connected.

Most of us live our lives like the janitor at the nuclear power station. I don't know how the hell it works or what exactly it does, but I know where the broom is and what time I get off.  



18 Jul 2004 @ 15:36 by vaxen : Well...
many are woking towars the ultimate synthesis though it is staring everyone right in the face. TTA let's all win?

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18 Jul 2004 @ 15:59 by ming : ISSS
Funny you give that link. I just spent part of the day helping ISSS through some website changes. They've lived on this same server here for years. But, yes, systems thinking is what is needed.  


18 Jul 2004 @ 18:10 by spiritseek : systems thinking
Hasn't it already been a systems thinking world. Perhaps the way and the answers are within. I suppose you could call that a systems thinking mode.  


18 Jul 2004 @ 18:39 by ming : Systems
The world is already based on systems. Or, it IS a whole system. The whole universe. So kind of strange that we find novelty in doing "systems thinking". Yeah, of course that's a bit of an intellectual way of expressing the stuff that already is both within and without.  


19 Jul 2004 @ 01:02 by ov : Systems
Fritjof Capra did a nice review of that field in his "Web of Life"  


19 Jul 2004 @ 03:28 by jazzolog : People Think Differently
perceive our information and process it uniquely, in my opinion. Part of the wonder and joy of being alive and around others is observing this phenomenon...and even talking with folks about how their particular "systems" work and were formed. If they can talk about it, that is. Not everyone in my experience can do it...or is comfortable or desirous of doing so.

Speaking of bills, Dana did the budget when we first got married...but slowly it evolved that it became my job. I don't think we ever had an objective talk about it, probably because our decision-making process together isn't the best feature of our marriage. It just became noticeable I guess that I have an organization feature in my character that works pretty well on maintenance. Dana is very creative, but likes to have me around to clean up. Mostly that's a good trade...except when I feel my own creativity is being stifled, or I can't find something I need that she didn't clean up.

The most incredible bill-paying system I ever ran into was a food co-op I joined in the early 1970s. Almost immediately they spotted my organizational skills (and were not so afraid of them they thought I might "take over" the community) and made me treasurer. I never had been treasurer of anything in my life! I asked where the accounts were, and they took me into a back room where there was a disconnected bathtub. In the bathtub were hundreds of invoices. The procedure was if you wanted to check something recent you looked on the top. For history you might have to dig around underneath. Then I was offered a joint.  



20 Jul 2004 @ 15:07 by Daruba @199.246.228.2 : I wake up like that everyday!
well, not so much anymore, but I love the analogy to needing to know/do something somewhere in the ephemera of our existence...  


19 Dec 2014 @ 17:52 by Mend @190.79.147.68 : KxDQNjtZhVEeuuBsx
While John prepares his post on Rothbury I tughoht I'd share my experience at this years Mayhem Fest (briefly..).Top 3 Performances (no order):Black Dahlia MurderSlayerTriviumTop 3 Bands I'm just getting tired of:Killswitch Engage (who remembers the original singer?)Bullet for My Valentine (John's favorite)Cannibal Corpse (for whatever reason the band was not as enthusiastic as smaller band performances, such as God Forbid.)I didn't stay for Marylin Manson, nor did a good portion of the crowd. Slayer should have headlined, but by the time Manson was up it was 2 AM and I had a drive to make, so eh .  


23 Dec 2014 @ 11:02 by Jesus @203.144.144.162 : PEjAzeIQGvr
I know how you feel Jon I've been in the same boat for the past year. Everynight I feel like I got something going on. No more going home after work. It's slionwg down just recently. Thank God.And yes, I did know about Outlook 2007 (2003 does also) using winword for rendering HTML. Many many crashes in Outlook start as a result of winword.exe process hanging after viewing HTML mail. They also have been known to call it WordMail , referring to using Word as the HTML renderer.  


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