The age of information, or of illusion?
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #68

Information moves at the speed of light, and accelerates our entire lives. As society relies ever more on knowledge, we who live in it are propelled too fast to absorb its activity - without the time to make sense of it, we churn out more and more data. This makes the age of information also, by nature, the age of illusion.

There are only so many processors of knowledge - humans, of course, who are the final consumers of it all. There are a limited number of producers of useful knowledge. But there is just so much data - and this, in the hurried information economy, leads to impatience being the most prominent ingredient of all actions, of all decisions.

Unprocessed data are generally not useful. Nor, for that matter, are data processed by any random person or organisation. Data become useful information only when they pass through filters, through trusted sources of knowledge - as unreliability is written into the system. And this built-in unreliability increases with the speed of information, with every change in media. Newspapers can still be more reliable than television, if only because TV leaves more interpretation to its viewers. TV can be far more reliable than the direct, egalitarian information flow of the Internet, which leaves absolutely all interpretation to its consumers.

This is both cause and consequence of information's fluidity. As people stop to think, information whizzes by - so they stop thinking, and whiz along with it. This makes for fewer intermediaries, and more direct interaction. Direct information can be useful - depending on who interacts with whom. Unfortunately, in the first flush of contact with the infosphere, it is usually forgotten that information cannot be treated like oil - where it matters little who buys and who sells. Oil is oil, and is valuable for being so. Information is not information, and is valuable only for the informed and informing people who use it.

If treated as inherently valuable, information feeds on itself, and becomes illusion. It becomes hyperbole - the plague of our new knowledge economy. It encourages the rapid birth and death of things - ideas, technologies, companies - without a life in between, in which they are carefully evaluated. It favours the end of reasonable decision-making, where choices can be considered for their usefulness. And it raises the threshold for success to a high, fickle level, where any inherent value is subsumed by whim, the changing fashions driven by badly processed, fast-moving data.

Sounds horrible? It needn't be, if society adapts to cyberspace, as it will. For it would be wrong to debunk the information age. Those who presume to do so succumb to what they criticize - the basic, illusion-causing impatience of a high-speed society. It should be remembered that the last information revolution - the printing press - took a couple of centuries to definitively change the world. This latest one may not be so much faster.

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