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.

6 Foot Square Project


Debajehmujig is excited to be able to invite you to participate in The 6’ Project, a project that is meant to daylight, celebrate and bring together the many diverse relationships that Islanders have with this land that we share. So if you’re a farmer, fisher, painter, writer, teacher, mechanic; if you’re in Wiky, Gore Bay, Sheshegwaning, all the way out to Meldrum Bay, in town or out in the bush; if you’re 83, 42 or 7; if you’re a man, woman, youth or child who loves this land, Manitoulin Island, please share this love. Take part in The 6’Project!

Here are your instructions for love – I mean – participation:

1. Choose a 6’x6’ piece of land that you have regular access to, permission to be on, and a personal connection to.

2. REGISTER yourself and your location with project co-ordinator Elisha Sidlar (she doesn’t bite). She can be reached by phone at 859-1171 or at or through Facebook (Elisha Sidlar) – and join the group The 6 Foot Project; Conversations with the Land. Registration is important as all participants will be shown in a community exhibition and festival taking place NOVEMBER 5, 6, 7 of this year.

3. Make art there. It should be something that reflects your relationship to this land. Document it. You could … create a sculpture and document it, record the audio of that place (which is documenting it), take pictures of that place (also documented), write letters to that space (the letters would act as documentation) sit there every day and write a story (documentation), paint a particular flower’s life cycle (painting=documentation), erect some sort of shelter, be it tipi, mudhouse or sugarshack and live there, but just make sure you document it with like, a video camera or something.

4. Did I mention you need to document it? Documentation may take the form, but is not limited to, photos, video recording, audio recording, drawings, writings, songs and any other way you can think of. The actual pieces will take place out on the land. We need the documentation to be able to come together and share our experiences come festival time. Don’t feel limited if you don’t have some state of the art camera. Be creative.

5. All documentation must be submitted to Elisha by OCTOBER 22, 2010. Contact her for further information. All of this work will then be assembled into a community exhibition. Sa-weet! We are so jazzed by the thought of bringing together all the different ways that us Islanders relate and connect to this land. Artistically, historically, agriculturally, traditionally, reflectively, respectfully; this is an opportunity for us to come together and honour our relationships to the land and to each other, past present, and future.

6. Yay! Come to the Exhibition/Festival NOVEMBER 5, 6, 7, 2010 to be held at the Debajehmujig Creation Centre. Workshops! Music! Food! See old friends, make new ones. See everybody’s work. Talk. Laugh. Learn. Are you coming?

Please feel free to contact Elisha at 859-1171 or with any questions that may arise. One last gentle note; please show your love for the land by always treating her with respect. Have fun!


Manitoulin singing and baking! Feb. 5 and 6

Cider and Song
Friday, February 5 at 7:30 at the United Church in Gore Bay

Tickets at the door, $10 each or $20 family. Come and enjoy an evening of song with complimentary cider and cookies at intermission. Songs include some old time favourites like Blue Skies and My Favourite Things as well as some celtic folk songs, original songs by Director Jane Best and a Stephen Foster medley.

Baking with whole-grain flours
Saturday February 6, 9am–2pm at Café in the Woods, Honora Bay

This will be an informative and tasty learning experience, offering new ideas and some hands-on experience of baking breads using whole flours. Many people have asked about adjusting recipes using the LoonSong flour (which includes the bran and germ and has slightly different baking characteristics than commercial flours). Others have said: “I don’t bake!” Well, this is an opportunity to learn and try, and get encouragement and inspiration!!

We will have the pleasure of working with Ilsa Giselman and Maja Mielonen, two of Manitoulin’s best-loved bakers. We will go through three to four different recipes, using different flours: wheat, rye, white, and also using added seeds and goodies. We will observe and listen, and also get a try at mixing and kneading, feeling the consistencies and textures of different doughs. The various recipes will include traditional techniques of kneading, as well as alternative methods, such as using a bread-maker, and electric mixer.

While the breads rise, Paul Salanki will speak about growing organic grains here on Manitoulin, the various steps in processing and milling the flour and the nutrition of different grains and flours – there will be lots of opportunity for questions and sharing of recipes and ideas.

We will have a potluck lunch, and taste all the breads that we make that day. Breads and flours will also be available for sale. Everyone will take home some recipes, along with inspirations for winter baking and eating!!

Fee for the workshop is $20. Register with us at LoonSong at Pre-registration recommended, space is limited.

Landscape Art Explorations Workshop

Friday eve. February 12, through Saturday, February 13th
at LoonSong Garden/McLean’s Mountain.

This is the second seasonal landscape art workshop organized by 4elements Living Arts on Manitoulin: this time a winter session!!

We will explore approaches to creating artwork and “sculptures” that are from the land and go back to the land, using just what is found on-site–snow, ice, grasses, leaves, wind, light, etc….

In October, participants explored and created artworks around the environment in Sheguiandah and Rockville, and this session will take place at LoonSong and on McLean’s Mountain. Rachel Ellaway of Sudbury will facilitate, and a brainstorming about future landart workshop ideas will happen on Saturday.

Introductory discussion and slide presentation with potluck Friday evening 6-9pm, Saturday creation of works approximately 9-5, including discussions and shared lunch (times maybe adjusted depending on weather).

Lots of tea and cocoa, and space for warming up, available throughout the day!!

Sliding scale fees for this workshop $30-$60.

For full details, or to register, contact Heather at email address above, or phone 368-0460 or 368-1855.