The Information Economy, part 2

My earlier posts about the energy economy referred to the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources, and the technological options involved. Like all the transitions now under way, this one involves a change of habits at every scale. Our technology is an extension of our habits, a framework that constrains them while also affording them opportunities for development.

fractal information

fractal information

Any change that actually improves our way of living – makes it more sustainable and less destructive, or enhances its connectivity with the rest of the biosphere – involves learning. And just as our civilization requires inputs of energy from natural sources, learning requires information from reliable sources.

The word ‘information’ has many and varied uses for various purposes. Here it refers to whatever informs our habits, shapes them, makes a difference to their form. (This is explained much more fully in my peer-reviewed paper on Peircean semiotics, Rehabilitating Information.) Humanity needs to be better informed in order to inhabit the Earth in a healthier way than we do now. But the information economy is currently suffering from inflation: there are far more messages available to us than we have time to pay attention to. Even as the supply of cheap energy dwindles, we are flooded with more cheap messages than ever. Many are generated by advertising and propaganda for corporate or partisan interests, some of them pushing an agenda quite contrary to the common good. There’s also a flood of what i call tabloid information, which may also affect our habits, but not in a way that enhances our connectivity with the real world. Propaganda and entertainment (including ‘infotainment’) are multi-billion-dollar industries today, so the messages they produce are not ‘cheap’ in terms of the financial investment that went into them – i call them ‘cheap’ because they’re not worth paying much attention to.

Information is useful to the extent that it serves some purpose; propaganda, for instance, is useful to whoever benefits from the belief it aims to propagate. But information is genuine to the extent that it connects form, experience and reality. Our purposes guide our habitual practices, but they can only work within the limits of our imagination and our experience – and we habitually forget how limited these are. Reality is much broader than anyone’s experience and much deeper than we imagine. But our only direct contact with reality is through experience, and our only way of comprehending experience is by recognizing the forms embodied in it. This means that our only way of learning anything is through signs connecting form, experience and reality to create genuine, habit-changing information. But when learning opportunities occur, our attentional habits – the habits which determine what we pay attention to and what we ignore – often make the difference in how we read the signs, and thus whether we learn anything from them or not.

One of our deepest instinctive habits is to maintain the integrity of our belief system. If a new message or other sign conflicts with strong beliefs, you are unlikely to accept it unless your own experience (or something even stronger) forces you to. But since most human belief systems are fairly complex (even though they simplify the real world for us), it’s not unusual for new information to conflict with some part of the system while confirming other parts. If it turns out to be a genuine discovery, then your whole belief system will reorganize itself, incorporating some new beliefs and eliminating some old ones. In other words, you will learn something that changes your habits. This is how common sense evolves. But habit systems would rather not change if they can avoid it: they are naturally conservative, because their survival depends on stability and consistency.

Belief systems tend to conserve their own simplicity in the face of life’s complexities. One way of doing this is to adopt certain beliefs as fundamental, which means clinging tenaciously to them and rejecting or ignoring whatever would challenge them. But faith in a fundamental belief is at best a substitute for genuine faith in the integrity of the belief system as a living whole capable of growth. If we have genuine faith in our ability to recognize the truth about some subject – which does not depend on what any person or group thinks about it – then we have to accept that any one belief is fallible, open to question and improvement. That doesn’t mean we can question everything at once – questioning itself relies on the integrity of the belief system, which means that in practice we have to take some things for granted in order to question others. Some beliefs may be taken for granted so consistently and productively that nothing ever happens to call them into question. But if and when the question does arise, the healthy belief system is open to it, whereas the fundamentalist will fight to keep itself closed.

When the process of inquiry goes public, new complications arise because we are dealing with a collective belief system that can only learn by testing new ideas against many observations. In science (meaning an organized system of public inquiry), a hypothesis that would modify the established belief system is not accepted unless it is supported by the experiments or observations of many independent investigators, and even then its acceptance is provisional. In order to count as part of this testing process, an investigation must be open to the scrutiny of other investigators qualified to assess its methods: the individual can only contribute to the inquiry as part of a network. The author of a new idea may arrive at it through intuition or inspired guesswork, but she can’t rely on her authority to get it accepted into the scientific belief system. In science, as C.S. Peirce pointed out, ‘experience is our only teacher’ and authority counts for nothing. But since this kind of inquiry requires a large investment of time and attention (not to mention money), often for inconclusive results, only a minority of people can fully engage in the kind of specialized inquiry we call scientific. In the broader community, since we can’t afford that kind of investment, we have only indirect access to that kind of experience. So we have to rely on simpler ways of deciding what information to accept or reject.

One short cut we commonly use is to rely on the authority of specific trusted sources. But how do we know what sources to trust? The simplest way is to trust those who tell us what we already believe – but this amounts to indulging in self-deception. Another way is to trust those sources which are most persuasive. But as we all know, persuasion has become a highly sophisticated, powerful and lucrative industry, often used – by those who can afford it – to manipulate public opinion. So this leaves us open to another kind of deception, unless we apply some critical thinking to the means of persuasion. Hence the importance of ‘sales resistance’ for the information economy.

Accordingly, many of us are in the habit of ‘questioning authority’ and resisting whatever we hear from the mainstream media, the scientific or professional establishment, or the government. Indeed this is just common sense, given the level of corporate ownership and influence over all of the above. But we sometimes overcompensate for our distrust of the establishment by placing uncritical trust in ‘alternative’ sources of information. We seem to think that since the ‘authorities’ are constantly lying to us, anyone who makes a point of opposing them must be telling the whole truth. This tends to make us partial to unconventional beliefs, ‘revolutionary’ (but untested) theories, ‘alternative’ medical treatments and so on.

When we are partial to a belief, we tend to overlook the lack of evidence for it. This makes us partial to conspiracy theories, which give us a convenient excuse for ignoring the lack of evidence: it’s not there because “They” have conspired to cover it up! Only a believer in conspiracy theories would think that the lack of supporting evidence for a theory is a good reason to believe it. Conspiracy theories are tempting, though, because we all know that conspiracies do happen; besides, the corporate media do suppress information, when they can get away with it, without even having to conspire. But the only way to stop them getting away with it is to find and document the facts and make them public. Endless debates about who killed JFK or who was responsible for 911 or what’s hidden at Roswell are the stuff of tabloid information, not genuine public inquiry.

If we believe anything simply because it’s contrary to what established science or authority says, or accept anything as fact without looking at the evidence for and against it, we’re indulging in self-deception. That’s a step backward in the evolution of common sense, which calls for critical thinking to be applied impartially to every idea that claims a place in our belief system – and it’s the beliefs we are partial to that really need our critical attention. We can’t honestly claim to know something unless we can tell how we know it.

But this brings us back to the clash between the flood of information and the limitations of our attention. Genuine critical thinking is not easy, and we don’t have time to apply it to everything. So the third and last part of this series will set forth a few guidelines for judging whether an information source is worth paying attention to or not. There’s nothing terribly original in these guidelines – they’re just common sense, really. But like any other set of tools, they’re more likely to be used wisely if we can see why they work.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA)

Access to locally sourced food is a key element of resilience. Recently the National Farmers Union has flagged yet another attempt by the government of Canada to hand over control of food sources to global agribusiness corporations. The NFU has a Fact Sheet and a petition to Parliament on their website. Here is the text of the petition:

Petition to the House of Commons in Parliament assembled

We, the undersigned citizens of Canada, recognize that the agreement known as CETA between Canada and the European Commission will impact on all aspects of our lives. This proposed agreement will jeopardize the ability of governments at all levels to procure goods and services that favour in any way local businesses thereby, for example, destroying arrangements that specifically source local food. Further this agreement is calling for the inclusion of UPOV91 a draconian form of Plant Breeders Rights legislation that will effectively eliminate a farmer’s or citizen’s ability to save, reuse, exchange and sell seed.

This agreement is also calling for the inclusion of enforcement procedures to uphold intellectual property rights that would allow for the judicial precautionary seizure of movable and immovable property, and the freezing of bank accounts of the alleged infringer. A farmer could see his/her home, land, equipment, and crops seized and have bank accounts frozen for being accused of using seed (including their own) that has a gene patent or other form of intellectual property attached to it. We also recognize that this agreement is likely to have very negative impacts on our Canadian supply management systems for dairy, poultry and egg farmers as well as the Canadian Wheat Board.

Therefore, your petitioners call on Parliament to refrain from entering into any arrangement that would restrict or prohibit governments from favouring local goods, services and local food. Further we call on Parliament to reject any agreement such as THE COMPREHENSIVE ECONOMIC AND TRADE AGREEMENT that would contain UPOV91 and any other restriction on farmers and citizens’ ability to save, reuse, select, exchange and sell seeds. We further call for the outright rejection of any provisions which would allow for the judicial precautionary seizure of crops, homes, land, equipment, and the freezing of bank accounts for alleged infringement of intellectual property. We call on Parliament to fully disclose the content of this agreement, including the text, throughout the entire negotiating process to the citizens of Canada.

NAME (printed)
ADDRESS (printed)

Please fill out and return to the National Farmers Union, 2717 Wentz Ave., Saskatoon, Sask. S7K 4B6 or fax to the NFU at (306) 664-6226.

For more information, contact the NFU office at (306) 652-9465 or by email at or go to

This does need to be checked out because some aspects of it are confusing. For instance: the NFU recognizes CETA as a threat to farmers because their assets could be seized if they are accused of violating ‘intellectual property rights’ (for instance by saving seeds); but these rights are claimed by corporations who own patents to genetically modified organisms. Yet the NFU Fact Sheet says that the ‘CETA agreement does not apply to Genetically Modified Organisms’ (because of an Appendix inserted by the EU). This may need some explaining.

Permaculture arrives on Manitoulin

This webspace has been quiet all summer because it’s been so busy on the Island! Justin (who started the blog) has been laying the groundwork for Manitoulin Permaculture – which now has its own website, He organized an introductory 3-day course in August, and will soon be offering more extensive learning opportunities – check the website to learn more about permaculture, which could be described as a set of design principles and practices for improving the resilience of local systems.

Another introductory course will be starting on Saturday October 2nd at the Little Current campus of Cambrian College, with instructor Mishka Soter. Here’s a description:

Introduction to a sustainable future. A course intended for local farmers, landowners and anyone interested in sustainable property management. In this course you will be exposed to exciting and evolving projects locally and abroad that are developing sustainable land use models. Big or small, all of these ideas are helping people feed themselves and their families in cost effective and responsible ways. By the end of this course you will have a basic knowledge of some ideas being used in permaculture, sustainable energy, building design, large and small scale organic farming. Course includes

  • Guest speakers on permaculture, building design, renewable energies and organic farming
  • Videos and printed material on the topics
  • Activities involving the design of personal property providing hands on teaching

The course will also introduce you to local and international people and groups who can further develop your design ideas or guide you toward future studies or employment. A large collection of reference materials and connections to online discussion/work groups will assist you in finding local volunteer projects to get involved with and connect people to any projects you may have planned. Working together we can all live well.

This course will run for 8 hrs and cost $56.00. There will be a follow-up course offered in the spring/summer/fall of 2011 to participants and new students (3 8-hr sessions at a project site). Mishka will also be adapting the course to use in the local elementary and secondary schools.

Democracy vs. capitalism, local vs. factory food

Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, has just been released on DVD, and thanks to Maja Mielonen, we now have a copy on the Island. Maja will be showing it as one of our ‘movies that matter’ nights (and to celebrate the equinox) on Sunday, March 21. Moore’s ironic style has never been stronger, or deeper, presenting the whole sweep of American history as a struggle between capitalism and democracy – and showing how democracy can still win, despite the hijacking of the federal government by Wall Street.

Though Moore’s film is American to the core, the struggle between capitalism and democracy (or people vs. corporations) is a global one. A recent victory for democracy is covered by the excellent Yes! Magazine website in Iceland Busts the Banksters.

Yes! Magazine online is an excellent resource for resilience, and you can subscribe there (also for free) to a weekly highlights email. The current print version of Yes! also features an interview with Elinor Ostrom, a summer visitor to Manitoulin, who recently won the Nobel Prize in economics for her lifelong work on cooperation and common property.

farmersalatin_resizedAnother new DVD resource has been acquired by Chuc and Linda Willson, who are among the most active promoters of local food on Manitoulin: Food Inc. is a devastating exposé of the corporate food industry in the U.S., with a particular focus on meat production, including health issues and unfair labor practices, on Monsanto and its domination of soybean production, and on political issues in the U.S. such as labeling of GMO products. It also shows the viable (and more resilient) alternatives of organic, free-range and local food production. One of the film’s most articulate spokesmen for alternative farming is Joel Salatin, pictured here. Local and organic food advocate Michael Pollan is also featured, as he is in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the extra features on the new Michael Moore DVD. Food well researched and powerfully delivered. Despite its focus on the U.S., the tight integration of North American food systems means that it’s relevant to Canada as well. It’s a welcome addition to earlier films on food issues, King Corn and The Future of Food (which are included in the Honora Bay Resource Library).

Vegetarian Grand Opening in Gore Bay

Last summer, The Island Chill opened in Kagawong with its vegetarian menu, as noted on our other Manitoulin blog. Now an expanded year-round version is open in Gore Bay, just down the street from the Island Pantry health food store. It’s currently ‘take-out’ only, but that will change in early February. They are planning a Grand Opening for Sunday, February 14th, with a special menu and live entertainment, from 5 to 8 pm. If you want to be there, you can make a reservation – 282-8215 – the new diner seats up to 20.

Regular Sunday hours are 10 am – 7pm, and the restaurant will be open (for brunch and lunch) before the grand opening. Anyone interested can call Kris at the number above.

Wind farm worries?

The Manitoulin Coalition for Safe Energy Alternatives now have their own blog – the place to go if you have questions about the impact of the proposed wind farm in Northeastern Manitoulin.

Coming events: September


Your’e invited to the Equinox Celebration on Monday, September 21 at Way Out In Farm in Wikwemikong. This will include a sunrise ceremony and a potluck at 5 p.m., but you can also drop in any time during the day: Clay Trudeau and Wilma Nadjiwon, 179 Whiskey Harbour Rd., 859-2105. Bring your own lawn chairs and dishes. This is the site where they are building a large community root cellar (see the article in the Expositor of 9/9/09); main building dates are Sept. 26 and Oct. 3 if you can help out.

Also on September 21, a ‘global wake-up call’ will go out to world leaders from hundreds of local gatherings in support of real action on climate change at the Copenhagen summit in December. See the AVAAZ site for details, or to register an event.

On Saturday, September 26, the Harvest Bounty Dinner and Dance will be held at the Gore Bay Curling Club with dinner starting at 6 p.m. This annual event is organized by the Manitoulin Community Food Network and features locally-grown food prepared by local chefs (this year, Ruta Tribinavicius) followed by a dance (more details in the Expositor of 9/9/09). Tickets ($30) can be had from many of the local food growers or Maja Mielonen (377-4471).

Zero Waste Meeting Follow Up

We had a successful, informative and lively meeting last night. Thanks to all those who contributed to the incredible, garbage-free meal, productive conversations and jam session at the end of the night!

Below are links to the two videos we watched for those that had to leave early.

The Story of Stuff – a 20 minute tour of the consumer economy

Story of Stuff

Charles Moore on Plastic in the Ocean

Resilient Manitoulin Meeting and Potluck

Resilient Manitoulin Meeting and Potluck August 23rd, 2009Sunday, August 23rd, 5:30pm at the Ski Club

The theme for this month’s meeting is Zero Waste Living. We will be discussing how to move towards zero waste in the home and community. Accordingly, please strive for zero waste during food preparation and transportation of your potluck contribution as THERE WILL BE NO GARBAGE CAN AVAILABLE (there will be a compost container)! Please bring your zero waste food preparation story to share with your supper mates.

To further reduce the footprint of our meeting, our Google group (send email to: can be used to organize carpools and for the more dedicated, cycling, walking, running and pogo stick companions!

For more information contact Justin or Lisa (368-2193).

Please arrive early so that we may get started on time; doors open at 5:15pm.