The Information Economy, part 3

If you are engaging in a genuine inquiry – that is, trying to find out the truth, whether it agrees with your current opinion or not – then you need sources of information beyond your own limited experience. But on any given question, there are likely to be more sources available than you can possibly use – especially if you are searching the Internet (rather than, say, your local public library). Therefore you have to select the sources worth investing your attention in, and filter out the rest. Your personal prejudices – which we all have – don’t work very well as filters because they will reinforce whatever self-deception you might be indulging in.

fractal network

fractal network

But there are some common-sense principles by which you can select reliable sources, and these will weed out most delusions and deceptions (although some may still get through the filters simply because we are all fallible). I’ll give a short list of these below, but first we need to clarify the difference between genuine and bogus information.

Genuine information is not necessarily useful for ‘practical’ purposes, because practical purposes are limited and partial. Sometimes ‘useless’ information is just what we need for the deeper purpose of forming or reforming our habits and partial purposes, moving them toward a deeper connection with the wholeness of reality. The arts, although they may seem to offer nothing but diversion from ‘the real world’, can afford us genuine information by refreshing our perception. A play or work of art can show us real possibilities we hadn’t imagined, or present our own habits to us in a new context (holding the mirror up to nature, as Hamlet says). On the other hand, ‘information’ that distracts our attention from the real world without refreshing our perception is useless for learning anything. This is what i call tabloid information, after the kind of media which are devoted to distraction.

Distraction (or “entertainment”) is a lucrative industry these days, but there’s an even more lucrative industry devoted to disinformation. This is even worse than useless because it misrepresents reality in order to serve some partial purpose, such as increasing corporate profits or advancing some partisan agenda. Standards of ‘truth in advertising’ and ethics in ‘public relations’ are supposed to protect us from disinformation, but the public agencies charged with enforcing those standards are sometimes overruled or manipulated by those in power – especially those who owe their positions of power to the success of their own disinformation campaigns!

Some people call disinformation “propaganda”, but that’s not what the word means. By definition, propaganda is anything that propagates a particular point of view. An activist who discovers a particular truth through honest investigation might devote herself to propagating it (informing others of it) simply because it’s important. Marie-Monique Robin’s documentary film The World According to Monsanto is an example. On the other hand, a corporation might want to sell more of its product, and therefore propagate a positive image of it rather than the whole truth about it. Monsanto’s own advertising (or indeed just about any advertising) is an example. An activist promoting a cause in which he sincerely believes (such as anti-nuclear or anti-wind power) might produce a third kind of propaganda, which differs from the first kind because it aims to propagate a belief without first engaging in honest inquiry to find out whether the belief is true.

In its lack of respect for the whole truth, this third kind of propaganda resembles advertising more than investigative journalism. The main difference is that the activist is usually quite sincere in his belief, while the advertiser doesn’t need to be sincere – he is paid for effective persuasion, not for what he believes. But sincerity is no guarantee of truth, as the sincere believer may be just as willing as the advertiser to filter out facts, testimony or reasoning that don’t suit his purpose. The honest inquirer, on the other hand, will not allow her belief to interfere with the quest for truth, not even in her propaganda. She will instead present all sides of the issue that are even partially valid, and explain (if necessary) why one side is more valid than another. This kind of propaganda often comes closer to the truth than so-called “objective” journalism, where the journalist follows the rule of giving equal time to both sides of a debate, even when he knows that one side is misinformed or lying. In order to avoid “editorializing”, this journalist is following a conventional business rule rather than the principles of genuinely investigative journalism. Those principles, because they respect both the whole truth and the common good, require a journalist to make some impartial common-sense judgements about the quality of information.

Propaganda is not necessarily disinformation, but even when it is truthful, it adds to the problem of inflation in the information economy, increasing the challenge of sorting out the genuine from the bogus. Previous posts in this series have tried to show that the first step in regaining control of our attention is to see how our own habits can lend themselves to self-deception. The next step is to show how self-critical thinking can help us meet the challenge of recognizing genuine information sources. If we can’t find reliable sources in the flood of bogus information, we can’t invest our attention wisely, and then we turn into ‘an entire culture suffering from attention deficit disorder’ (David Orr 2002, 72).

We can of course screen out bogus messages by disconnecting from the media which carry them (turning off the TV, or ignoring the tabloids at the supermarket checkout) – but if we get too selective, blocking out whatever we don’t want to hear, we cut ourselves off from genuine information and dialogue too. Indeed that is what Anders Breivik did, according to an acquaintance of his who was recently interviewed on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. (Breivik is the man who killed at least 87 fellow Norwegians in the Islamophobic rampage of July 2011.) Insulating ourselves from information in this way doesn’t turn us all into mass murderers, but it could mean wrapping ourselves in such a comfortable cocoon that we never emerge into the real world.

We can invest our attention wisely in sources of genuine information if we can learn to distinguish them from the bogus. And we can recognize them by following a few common-sense guidelines, which i would formulate as follows:

• Anyone whom you know to be honest, impartial and well informed in a specific field is a reliable source of information in that field. If you want to know how to grow cucumbers, go to your neighbor who has been doing it successfully for years. Implicit here is the more general principle that learning builds on your belief system rather than replacing it: new information has to be integrated into your belief system in order to make a difference to your habits. This generally entails checking it against what you know from other sources. This takes time, which you don’t want to waste by checking claims that are highly implausible, or would not make much practical difference to our habits even if they were true. That’s the kind of claim we find in ‘tabloid information’.

• A reliable source is independent of other sources. In other words, the information provided by that source is based on her own experience or inquiry – it’s not just copied from somewhere else because it suits her purpose or prejudice. Sources who violate this principle include many climate change denial blogs and websites, which frequently repeat each other’s rumors, false claims and fabrications without checking the accuracy of the information for themselves. But in order to apply this principle, the inquirer would have to see that the information has been copied from elsewhere – and the perpetrator is unlikely to tell you that. Hence the next principle:

• Reliable sources use reliable sources themselves, and document those sources so that readers can check the origin and quality of their information. They also reveal their own identity and that of any organization they represent. “Front” groups for corporate interests (which many climate change denial sources are) usually try to conceal their affiliation with those interests, but this information is often easily found on the Internet, if you know how to look for it. Once you find that a source relies on unreliable sources, you can cross it off your own list of reliable sources.

• When reliable sources state their opinions or beliefs, they also present the factual evidence and reasoning on which those opinions are based. Bogus sources often appear to do this too; the difference is that bogus sources ‘cherry-pick’ the evidence to suit their pet belief rather than basing their belief on the facts or checking their opinion against all relevant facts, as an honest inquiry would do. Common sense recognizes that if you want to ‘prove’ something badly enough, you can usually find all sorts of ‘evidence’ and ‘reasons’ to back up that belief. But you wouldn’t do this if you respected the independence of truth from our beliefs. This kind of argument does pose a problem for the investigator because ‘cherry-picking’ is hard to detect if you aren’t somewhat familiar with the facts of the matter already. However, once you develop some skill as a researcher, you can readily spot this kind of thing, and sloppy or specious reasoning becomes pretty obvious. And once you’ve seen that a source is bogus, you don’t need to waste any more time on it in your quest for truth.

• When it comes to factual information, reliable sources are generally consistent with each other. (We are of course talking about independent sources here – consistency between sources counts for nothing if they are simply copying from each other.) Facts are public, available to all observers, and the reality of facts is independent of anyone’s belief in them. This is perhaps the most basic principle of common sense. If we really believed the contrary, that each person lives in a world of his own with its own set of facts, we could not even begin to communicate, let alone investigate. It follows that when factual statements conflict, we are entitled to assume that at least one of them is mistaken (or else that we have misunderstood the statements). On the other hand, when multiple independently reliable sources tell us the same thing, we are justified in believing it (until some new fact calls it into question).

The network of independent, consistent, reliable sources constitutes an information web that resembles in many ways the web of life. Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle, wrote that ‘Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’ The same goes for everyone who contributes to the information web – as we all do, in one way or another. We can’t be sure whether a specific message or symbol (book, webpage, article, movie, broadcast, rumour or whatever) will turn out to be truly informative until we invest our attention in it. But by following the common-sense principles above, we can guess well enough to learn from the genuine information without being distracted too much by the bogus. This will lead to improvements in our habitation of the web of life, both individually and communally, because we will have a better understanding of the real situation we inhabit.

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 Information Economy

Do you have time to read this article?



That’s a question you have to ask yourself (consciously or not) every time a potential source of information, a possible learning opportunity, presents itself to you – anything that could influence your habitual way of interacting with the world. It could be a song, a film, a book, a news broadcast, a conversation with a friend, a webpage or blog. Do you have time for it? Learning opportunities are virtually unlimited, if you have the means of engaging with them – but your time and attention have definite limits. This is the challenge of the information economy: How do you decide where to invest your attention?

When you are looking for specific information for a specific purpose, that question is relatively easy to answer, if it comes up at all. For instance, if you wanted to make a bomb out of fertilizer and common household chemicals, and you knew how to search the internet for that kind of information, you could find it easily enough. A certain Norwegian man apparently did just that in July 2011. But he also had a purpose for making the bomb, which he made public on a website just before using it: he intended to punish Norwegian liberals for allowing Muslims to carry out their program of world domination. How did he arrive at that intention?

Like all purposes that guide human behavior, this one was based on a particular view of the world – that is, a ‘map’ of the world which enables us to see (or imagine) how the world works, even though the real world is always much more complex than anything we can imagine. This particular map could be roughly described as a xenophobic Christian fundamentalist view. All human purposes are informed by some kind of map; but this is a much deeper kind of information than the kind you might need in order to accomplish a specific purpose such as building a bomb. It’s deeper because any specific intentions you have must be based on the way your inner map is organized. How do you know that your map of the world is based on reliable information?

To ask that kind of question requires faith, humility and hope. You have to believe that truth and reality are independent of anyone’s belief; that beliefs can truly represent or misrepresent reality; that actual experience can reveal discrepancies between belief and reality; and that honest recognition of those discrepancies can enable a belief system to correct itself. Lacking that faith, humility and hope, a believer can only defend his or her belief system against any facts, opinions or experiences that appear to challenge it. That kind of self-defense is really self-defeating rather than self-correcting, because it prevents the believer from learning anything deeper than the information that’s useful for some limited purpose.

The context of all your conscious intentions and purposes is your internalized map of the world. Whatever informs your map of the world, or makes a difference to the form of that map, will affect your specific intentions. And this is where the deeper challenge of the information economy lies. It’s deeper because facing it honestly requires us to challenge our own belief systems instead of wrapping ourselves up in them like a suit of armor.

I am referring to ‘our belief systems’ as if each of us had one of his own, but we typically underestimate how much of anyone’s belief system is simply taken over from the collective belief system of the surrounding culture. Human belief systems are largely based on learning from experience (rather than being ‘innate’ or ‘hard-wired’), but very little of what you consciously believe is actually based on your personal experience; most of it is picked up, consciously or not, from other people. We routinely accept the testimony of other people unless we have some reason for questioning its accuracy or honesty. To test this, just look at any map of the world (i mean a ‘literal’ map this time): you probably believe that all the places labelled on that map really are where the map says they are. But how many of them have you actually been to?

It only makes sense that your personal experience accounts for so little of your ‘personal’ belief system; after all, your personal experience is extremely limited. Hence it also makes sense to broaden your information sources, and to deepen your map of the world by entering into dialogue with others. But that means selecting your sources and your dialogue partners, since you can’t attend to everything and everyone. That’s where the information economy comes in. And the point i’m trying to make about it here is that the most fruitful dialogue arises from the differences between you and your dialogue partner (provided of course that you have some common ground).

Our internalized maps of the world determine our purposes by shaping our habitual views and belief systems. These belief systems are necessarily simplified, but some are more distorted than others. We can detect the distortion, if we are honestly looking for it, by paying attention to facts, which are actual experiences made public. Facts are not imaginary, although they must be imaginable: anything in the public domain, any information we can have in common, must have some form which we recognize in every actual experience embodying that form. Thanks to that shared perception, we can tell when there’s a clash between the facts and our maps of the world. Thus the validity or truth of a belief system is not entirely a matter of opinion. Some beliefs really are better than others, because they are more consistent with the factual truth.

It’s also true, however, that we often form opinions of other people’s belief systems based on our own values rather than facts. For instance, it’s my opinion that any belief system strongly motivated by hatred is a bad one. It’s also my opinion that it’s bad to kill people just because you disapprove of them. But i believe that most normal people share these opinions, because i can see that most people act accordingly – which is the real test of what people believe – and people’s actual, observable behavior is a matter of fact, not opinion. It’s also a fact that this particular Norwegian killed about 70 people, a fact based on the testimony of many witnesses (as well as his own). And it’s a fact that this same person, just before going on that killing spree, expressed on a website the beliefs which motivated him to do so. So i would say that his actions were based on a highly distorted belief system, and more generally, that any belief system based on hatred is bound to be distorted. Those are opinions, not facts, but they are based on inferences from the facts cited above (along with many others). Opinions can be based on fact, by means of reasoning, but facts cannot be based on opinions. Recognizing the difference (and the connections) between fact and opinion is crucial to the maintenance of a healthy belief system. This makes it a basic principle of the information economy.

Accordingly, my point in stating my opinions above is not that my belief system is better than that Norwegian’s. The point is twofold: (1) that all belief systems are prone to distortion because they are highly simplified representations of the real world; and (2) that we can minimize the distortion, and keep our belief systems healthy, by checking them against factual information based on actual experience. It can also be helpful to check them against other people’s opinions too, especially when those opinions are based on reasoning which respects the facts. Likewise, we often have to rely on other people’s testimony for factual information, because our personal experience is so limited. The information economy is just as public as the energy economy, or the money economy.

The health of our collective belief system and our information economy depends crucially on the honesty of those who contribute information to it. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we are capable of self-deception, especially when we are more strongly attached to our own intuitive beliefs than we are to the quest for truth. Even if nobody was trying to deceive others, the health of our belief systems would still be undermined by self-deception – and those who are in the business of deceiving others are all the more effective at it if they can deceive themselves first.

The difference between the honest inquirer and the dishonest one is really very simple. The honest investigator is aware that her beliefs could be wrong, and actively searches for factual information or honest opinion that would challenge distortions in her own belief system. The dishonest investigator does the opposite: he is so strongly attached to his own values, beliefs and emotional reactions that he ignores or avoids any facts or inferences that would challenge his beliefs, and devotes his time entirely to attacking other people’s views and defending his own against challenging facts or opinions.

When he does this in public, on some issue of public policy, his dishonesty is evident in the way he will throw together facts, speculations, rumors, unverifiable testimony, and even pure inventions, all in support of his prejudice. He will claim that anyone who disagrees with him is an unreliable source. If he makes use of research reported to be ‘scientific’, he will not investigate how the study was done (i.e. what direct experience or observation the study was based on); nor will he consider critically the reasoning that led to its conclusions – unless those conclusions are contrary to his belief. He will question the motives of those who disagree with him, but never his own motives or those of anyone ‘on his side’ of the issue. In short, he stretches or cuts the information to fit his belief, while the honest inquirer actively seeks out information that will challenge her belief. Show the honest inquirer that he’s wrong, and he will thank you, because you’ve contributed to the self-correction of his belief system. Show the dishonest one that she’s wrong, and she will defend her belief against you – and defend it all the more desperately when it is clearly contrary to the facts – instead of hoping to correct it.

Naturally, this account is oversimplified. None of us is totally honest (or totally dishonest), and we all have our habits that tend to resist change whether it’s needed or not. This series will look into some of those habits and how they affect the information economy; but i simply had to start by showing how deeply information affects our everyday lives. I hope that someone who shares my faith in the reality of truth, and my hope that we can get closer to it, will find the time to follow the rest of the series – and perhaps to point out its errors, so i can correct them.