Sunday, January 15, 2012

The More You Know, The More You Might Not Know


Scripta menant; verba volant: What is written stays; what is spoken evaporates.

These are probably the only words I remember fondly from a professor at med school who was, to put it mildly, an inveterate narcissist. More frustratingly, these words are true. I am by no means a student of history, and only wish I had studied it more earnestly at school, when I had the opportunity to avoid becoming a doctor.

Setting aside the soberingly true cliché that history depends on whose point of view it is written, it is my opinion that a balanced world history starts to emerge only from the late 19th century, as media complementary to words and pictorial representations appeared: something had to complement the revolution that began when man first started representing language in symbols. And it is the rendering of information, of which history is an important - but not the only - example, that is worrying me.

I may very well be reinventing the wheel with all this. I have no doubt many historians, philosophers and historiographers have put what I am about to say far more eloquently.

First we have photography: for the first time, barring death masks and casts, we get a precise view of what the world and its inhabitants actually looked like, at a particular time and place. Following quickly we have the magnificent contribution of the Lumiere brothers: film, the moving picture. Now we get to see how the world actually reacts. Simultaneously, sound is recorded. Soon, all of this is transmitted, and the snowball of information culminates in the bewildering soup of media we now bob in, all too often like hapless bubbles forced to evaporate as it boils on and on.

Of course, any (humanly collected) record is only as true as the individual who wrote it, and this colours the now universal ability of our digital creations to measure cold facts. (GPS. Weather data. Chemical compositions. Et frightening cetera.) The imperfect human senses have to process it. More insidious machinations could be stockpiling it all as I write, gradually becoming sentient…

Now I have almost destroyed my argument as I realize that data has been collected by the Universe with dehumanizing precision since it was conjured into existence. Think fossils, geological strata, the growth rings in trees. These may constitute "found data" in as much as there is "found art", the former, of course, less subject to whimsy and quixotic jurors of the Turner Prize. (I still balk at Tracey Emin's entry of her unmade bed for the most prestigious accolade in the British art scene, but, ahem, I digress.) This "found data" is seemingly harmless, and "found art" can be wowed or booed. I am more concerned about data in the form of "found objects". From fossils to archeological artifacts, these can set off ramifications that are at best interesting and at worst, genocidal pseudoscience (the Nazi justification for the Holocaust, for example.) Let's not go into the fury that the discovery of fossils unleashed, among others creation "science" (waaahaaaa!) and evolution.

All information is biased in that there has to be interpretation by the messy human mind. That is a platitude. Even so, the massive weight of information bearing down on us might save us even as we decry the ability of the Googleverse to turn us into one-click automatons. (And turn us into … fossils.) And why might it save us?

Because information - and by extension, history, is now finally democratic. At the deployment of a "search" button, we can generate thousands - millions - different takes on a single quantum of information, do our research, and form our opinions. I am by no means suggesting that this access to information may end up useful (I will not say correct), nor will it ever be truly holistic: just think of the Great Firewall of China and the other, sadly successful, attempts of many regimes to regulate the Internet for onerous purposes. Neither am I suggesting that the sheer volume of the Internet's capacity for data makes it the Way, the Truth and the Life.

For me, an important lesson becomes apparent as we realize information is bewilderingly multi-faceted. (This applies equally to science as it does to history - quantum theory effectively rent so much of what we thought we knew about the universe to shreds.) As we discover more things, we get the sinking feeling that there is so much we don't know. My good friend Troy Thiel has beautifully articulated in his blog how owning up to this discovery can be our greatest virtue. As I like to quote a physicist at the end of my emails, "The larger the searchlight, the larger the circumference the unknown".

The democratization of information has two key virtues: precise rendering is possible, and it is universally accessible. In this respect it is a logical consequence of that great blow Gutenberg dealt to the intelligentsia of the Church when he invented his printing press. I'm amused that I am now echoing my longstanding guru, E.M. Forster, when he gave democracy only two cheers (and I will not carry on, as I have been quoting him so much that I am in danger of being an automaton myself.) Why do I not give our Information Superhighway (permanently and desperately in need of more lanes to carry its exponentially multiplying traffic) three cheers?

Consider this:

I will not be surprised that in a few years 3-D recording of actualities will be commonplace, and that we will be able to watch holograms à la Star Wars. Perhaps in less than a century information could be physically tangible. Could we digitize taste and smell too? (My father joked about Smellevision.) I worry. For then it will be a short slide to recreating reality, and all we will need to do is let ourselves be plugged into the Matrix.

(And of course, we may already well be.)