10 August 2008

The power of Babel

This is a continuation of a comment left a moment ago to Unreal Nature's "Fear of Heretics". Those who have known me any length of time will recognise it as one of my stuck record moments – a favourite quotation which I recycle with weary regularity. Never mind – here it comes again.

"Literature, from the very beginning, has had a single enemy, and that is the restriction of the expressed idea. It turns out, however, that freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?" (Stanislaw Lem: His Master's Voice)

I do not, I must emphasise, for one moment advocate restraining freedom of expression ... but I do advocate thinking through how to live with its responsibilities.

10 comments:

Julie Heyward said...

I am much less worried about too much (unfiltered) information than I am about too little (if I am correctly interpeting the somewhat confusing phrase, "the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest"?).

A core feature of evolution is that those best able to filter the meaningful from the noise will survive. Any species alive today is here because, on average, it does that very well.

You "advocate thinking through how to live with its responsibilities". I think people do that instinctively, constantly, naturally, by nature -- all the time.

Felix Grant said...

On the first part of that, I completely agree: "I do not, I must emphasise, for one moment advocate restraining freedom of expression". We have to deal with the rising levels of noise, not restrict the flow.

On the second part, I'll agree as well.

On the third, however, we must agree to differ...

The converse of your evolution point is that species which fail to do it will not survive. That may yet happen.

"On average" used to mean, de facto, that most individuals performed in a way which favoured survival. Now, that is no longer true. As a species (and evolutionary survival favours the species or the genes, not the individual) we have done by artifice what the social insects do by nature, and moved such filtering to a herd wide basis. So, "on average" now means that the herd behaves in a way which favours its survival.

My own experience persuades me that in cultural contexts human beings are actually very bad at filtering signal from noise, especially when the noise level is high.

The survival mechanism most widely adopted by human beings is that of herd animals everywhere. Abandon individual analysis altogether. Never mind what is signal and what is noise,just stay close to the herd. Rely on statistical likelihood to minimise the probability of personal exposure to by hiding in the crowd.

Julie Heyward said...

The fact that people's reactions so often disappont; that they " Rely on statistical likelihood to minimise the probability of personal exposure to by hiding in the crowd" doesn't (necessarily) mean that they didn't hear the message. It (may/probably) means that the alternative reactions are deemed more risky.

"we have done by artifice what the social insects do by nature, and moved such filtering to a herd wide basis"

What is artifice in evolution? How do you extract that from -- all the rest? Does that lead to too much, or too little information? And is that really new to humans?

There is a correlation between the distance from the audience to the event/idea and the acceptance or indifference to confusing information. I'm not sure that's new or surprising. I agree with you that it is disappointing.

Felix Grant said...

JH> that they "Rely on statistical
JH> likelihood to minimise the
JH> probability of personal exposure
JH> by hiding in the crowd" doesn't
JH> (necessarily) mean that they
JH> didn't hear the message.

No, it doesn't. But all the evidence suggests that their response to high information loads is not to seek the message at all, opting for crowd cover as the alternative.

JH> What is artifice in evolution?

Just one more environmental factor - usually (so far) favouring species survival on balance (a more accurate form of words, IMO, than "on average) though sometimes coming very close to the opposite.

JH> How do you extract that from
JH> -- all the rest? ... And is
JH> that really new to humans?

Don't have to ... and yes, on an environment altering scale. While use of tools is found in other species, nowhere is it known to be used as a way of deliberately and coöperatively modifying the environment in pursuit of abstract and deferred goals (which is what we do when, for instance, we use money or computers)

JH> Does that lead to too much,
JH> or too little information?

No. But it does allow us to delegate information processing away from the individual (eg, to governments, corporations, committees, computer models) and thus avoid practice in upgrading out own signal/noise discrimination skills - or, in other words, critical thinking skills.

Poor Pothecary said...

Not sure if this is a duplicate: assuming not:

But all the evidence suggests that their response to high information loads is not to seek the message at all, opting for crowd cover as the alternative.

This gets us into the whole territory of cognitive biases: see List of cognitive biases. If information gets complex and confusing, fall back on a whole toolkit of responses that work very well for survival, but aren't necessarily the "best" analysis of the information.

For instance, a situation may or may not be hostile. Our default is toward paranoia - a bias toward assuming it to be hostile - because even if that's wrong, in a survival situation it's better than wrongly perceiving it to be friendly.

Julie Heyward said...

JH> What is artifice in evolution?

FG> Just one more environmental factor - usually (so far) favouring species survival on balance (a more accurate form of words, IMO, than "on average) though sometimes coming very close to the opposite.

I thought it generally resulted in a perpetual arms race. (Cheaters vs cheat-detecting skills; male reproductive interests vs female reproductive interests and so forth.) If that carries over to the Web, over time, we should see a see-saw between the influence of the givers and that of the receivers of information. I think that's unavoidable -- it's the nature of evolution.

I don't think we disagree on that. The part that I do disgree about is your last bit:

"... it does allow us to delegate information processing away from the individual (eg, to governments, corporations, committees, computer models) and thus avoid practice in upgrading out own signal/noise discrimination skills - or, in other words, critical thinking skills."

Assuming "us" means each of us for ourselves (as opposed to the royal us doing it to the others), I think people are remarkably selective and stingy about letting anybody else make up their mind for them. If they are delegating it's either because they have great confidence in the delegate or because they don't care (which means they think the matter is not relevant to their life). Or, of course, because they are being coerced, but that's not what we are talking about.

[I hope I'm not wearing you out by going on and on. I find this very interesting.]

Felix Grant said...

JH> I think people are remarkably
JH> selective and stingy about
JH> letting anybody else make up
JH> their mind for them.

I can only say that either we meet very different people (perhaps a few of your acquaintances would like to sign up for my undergraduate courses?) or we are assessing these things in very different ways...

Sammy'sDot said...

PP> If information gets complex and
PP> confusing, fall back on a whole
PP> toolkit of responses that work
PP> very well for survival, but
PP> aren't necessarily the "best"
PP> analysis of the information.

Bang on.

It also gets us into the differentiation of response thresholds. All animals vary in these thresholds in normal circumstances (social animals, for example, differentiate their threshold according to rank in the group hierarchy), but further let them drift in circumstances which diverge from evolutionary edge. Witness Lions at Longleat, for example. Most human beings in a Western industrialised society are a long way from that edge, and exhibit a very wide spectrum of threshold differentiation.

Julie Heyward said...

"I can only say that either we meet very different people"

Heh.

You have no idea.

Poor Pothecary said...

We actually have a live example of the syndrome Lem described in the current Lorna Page news story: see A book story. For whatever reason (slightly less than candid press release + newspaper desire for a feelgood story) we have the worldwide story of a 93-year-old lady who bought a home on the advance and sales of her first novel.

I doubted this the moment I saw it in the Western Morning News: local news items about unlikely first novelists almost invariably come down to vanity publishing. And so it turned out - making the part of the story about the advance (and major profit so soon after publication) vanishingly unlikely.

I was among a number of bloggers to spot it; so far, only a commentator at The Independent has done so in a newspaper. On the blog and newspaper circuit meanwhile, the untrue version predominates; the world, largely, believes an old lady bought a home on the proceeds of her novel.

We can ask ourselves there whether those propagating the untrue version - which is easily debunked simply by Googling the name of the publisher - are thinking through how to live with the responsibilities of being part of the information-spreading process, or just uncritically copying a feelgood story that presses various emotional buttons.