Information, Not Plastics
The world has come a long way since the 1960s when the future was defined by one word – “plastics” – as Mr McGuire advised the young graduate Ben. Now the future is defined by another word and the word is “information.” Plastics was a wonder product of the world of industrial technology which fundamentally transformed the world of objects. Information is the new thing, the product of information technology, which is going to transform the world of ideas. Actually, information is not a “thing” in the usual sense of the term. So it is the new non-thing which defines the new and exciting future.
Let me enumerate some fun facts about information. First, people produce information. So now that more people are producing information, a lot of information gets produced. Second, information accumulates. Once produced, unless every copy disappears, it persists. Third, it is a “public good.” One person’s use of a particular bit of information does not preclude another person from using the same information. Fourth, when information is “internalized” it becomes knowledge in a human brain. So the monotonically increasing stock of information raises the potential of acquiring knowledge by other humans. Processing information is one of the necessary steps in the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge in turn is a necessary ingredient in the process of generating ideas. Ideas eventually fuel the engine that drives human civilization.
So this note is about information, knowledge, ideas, human civilization, and the rest of it. A pretty large subject which I will necessarily deal with fairly superficially given my own limitations. First I will explore the subject from a micro perspective and then move to the macro. The objective is to draw some plausible conclusions about where we as a collective of humans are headed.
The object of analysis at the micro level is the individual human. At the bare minimum, a human has to have a brain and a set of sense organs for acquiring information. Mostly it is through hearing and seeing that one receives input information – touch, smell and taste are not as important in the modern world as it would have been in our pre-literate past. Only if one is blind, or cannot read and is unable to comprehend language, do touch, smell and taste predominate – with the possible exception of tasters, noses, lovers and toddlers. Observe a toddler and note how he or she acquires information.
Physiologically the sense organs take in a huge amount of information that gets filtered and most of it is rejected. For example, from the total visual input from the eyes only a tiny fraction of the information gets processed by and stored in the brain. What we perceive is much smaller than what we see. Our brains would be overloaded if it were to process every bit of information that is presented to it. The different kinds of living organisms filter out different bits of information from the environment. Who you are determines what you perceive.
Biological versus the Artificial
A person acquires information from the environment and also the ever-increasing stock of created information. At this point it is useful to distinguish between what we can call the biological (or natural) environment and the cultural (or artificial) environment. The natural environment is that world which our species evolved in over evolutionary time scales. Our sense organs and our brains are in a strict sense biologically fit to deal with the natural world. The ability to deal with the information from the natural environment is hard-coded within us. We don’t have to go to school to learn how to process the information.
The artificial environment is created by human action. The information from it comes in terms of language and words. We have to go to school to learn, so to speak, how to process that information. An artist and a neurologist could see the same brain scan images but perceive it entirely differently because their training is different. The neurologist has over the years taken in a lot of information about brains and internalized it into knowledge. That knowledge allows the neurologist to process the information of the brain scan differently and thus acquire additional knowledge. The artist also acquires additional knowledge from the brain scans but that knowledge is different from that of the neurologist.
The point is that what you know already determines what you are additionally capable of knowing. There is a path dependency in the knowledge sphere that is tied to the sequence in which information was presented. Though the information available may be comprehensive (in the sense that it is complete), if the sequence of presentation of that information is out of order, it will not be comprehended. Graduate level physics information has to be presented after the undergraduate level physics has been internalized for it to make sense.
Knowledge accumulates in a human brain to the extent it is presented information in the correct sequence. It is not even theoretically possible for an external agency to determine what the correct sequence for a particular individual is. It is so because an external agent cannot fully know what the knowledge base of an individual is at a specific time. The solution is therefore to let the individual himself or herself pick out the next bit of information to internalize from a reasonably broad set of information.
Teaching versus Learning
This is where we need to distinguish between teaching and learning. Traditionally “teaching” is when an external agent presents information and expects the individual to internalize it into knowledge. “Learning” is when the individual picks up the next bit of information from the available collection. Learning can never be out of sequence. Teaching often fails in its attempt to impart knowledge because it is not even theoretically possible for an external agent to fully comprehend the internal knowledge state of the student and therefore competently present the information in the right sequence.
Summing up the points so far: information is the basis for knowledge in the brain; knowledge accumulates by internalizing information in the correct sequence.
The totality of information available to humans is enormous. Let’s call that “public information.” From that collection, each human being internalizes whatever little bit it is able to. That is “private information” leading to “private knowledge.” Since there are around 6 billion brains in the world, each brain has unique private knowledge but derived from the same public information. The larger the population, the greater is the stock of public information. But given the limitations of the human brain, progressively any human’s private information shrinks relative to the public information. In other words, a person becomes more ignorant relative to what is potentially knowable. All of us are privately ignorant in a world awash in information. Some time ago – perhaps as recently as a few hundred years ago – a person could potentially know a reasonable fraction of the available public information. Today that percentage would be approximately zero.
A world of infinite information is also necessarily a world of infinite individual ignorance.
This poses enormous challenges for the individual as well as humanity as a whole. As individuals, we have to accept that we cannot know everything that we potentially know. A trivial example. A few decades ago, you could have enjoyed watching within the year every movie made anywhere in the world that year. The trouble would have been that you would have had to be fabulously rich to go see them. You had the time but accessing the movies would have been costly. Today, it is fairly trivial to have access to all movies produced. But you just don’t have the time to watch even the good ones produced in just one year. World enough but time.
The Challenges and Opportunities
The challenge for the individual is how to choose which bits of the public information to consume and in which sequence. We are biologically equipped to filter out the massive amount of information coming at us from the natural world. We are not equipped to naturally filter out the currently massive amount of information coming at us from the artificial world. An individual’s success in doing so determines how successful one is in this artificial world. One of the primary jobs of the education system we need is to give us that skill. We did not need that ability and therefore our current educational system which was created for a different environment is totally ill-equipped to handle this task.
That brings us to the macro level. Any organization which does the filtering of the public information for individual use is going to be phenomenally successful. The largest corporations will be those that deal with information in the future. One can be accused of Monday morning quarterbacking for saying that. You could point to information technology giants of today and say that the lessons are plainly evident. But I don’t think that we have fully understood what the real lesson is. The point isn’t making a lot of information available to the individual. The point rather is that any institution that most efficiently and effectively reduces the information available to an individual will succeed.
General Purpose Machines
The other lesson pertains to education. The old paradigm was one-size-fits-all because only one size was available. It was an older, simpler, static world where you could learn a small set of skills and hoped to cope with the world for the rest of your life. The dynamic world of today requires constant learning and the acquisition of new skills. A useful analogy would be the distinction between a special purpose machine and a general purpose machine. A typewriter is a special purpose machine while a computer is a general purpose machine. Depending on what software you load, a computer can do a range of things – from guiding spaceships to controlling your microwave oven. People have to become the equivalent of general purpose machines. People must become capable of “loading the appropriate software” to handle any task they want done.
The education system of today churns out special purpose machines. To make it produce general purpose machines requires a few basic changes. First, it has to teach a set of very basic skills so well that everyone is literate and numerate. That is equivalent to designing a machine which has a complete set of machine instructions which it executes very efficiently and all the other tasks are just the execution of a long sequence of these basic operations. Once you know how to competently read, write, do arithmetic, and reason logically, you can pretty much learn how to do pretty much anything that the human mind is capable of.
That bit is the “teaching” bit of the educational system. Nothing else needs to be taught. The rest is entirely dependent on what the individual is interested in and capable of learning. Here the job of the educational system is to make accessible to the student a comprehensive information set – and NOT the entire public information – for the student to pick from, and in the sequence that he or she feels naturally inclined to, and internalize it. By allowing the student freedom to choose what he or she wants to internalize, it releases the information constraint (that is, the problem of knowing what the student knows) which otherwise is impossible to circumvent.
The age of agriculture yielded to the age of industrialization. Agriculture did not go away. It just became sufficiently productive that it released labor that was absorbed in producing non-agricultural goods and services. The percentage share of agriculture declined – not the absolute amount of agricultural production. Wealth, standard of living, or whatever you call it increased in pace with the decline in direct employment in agriculture.
The industrial age is giving birth to the information age. Once again, it is not that the amount of goods produced by the industrial sector is itself declining. It is not. Indeed, it is increasing. But that increase is due primarily to an increase in productivity and hence it releases labor to the rising sector – the information sector. As the labor force increases in the information sector, the production and subsequent consumption of information is bound to increase.
In the agricultural age, those parts of the world which were the most productive agriculturally prospered. It largely depended on the endowment of natural resources and a bit of human capital. It was a simple world and the social order was commensurately simple. Not much investment in terms of human capital was required. Education was largely an informal affair.
In the industrial age, prosperity depended on industrial productivity, which in turn depended on a reasonably educated work force. Education had to be formalized and the requirements could be met with standardized schools. The public information was limited but sufficient to meet the needs of the industrial worker.
In the information age, prosperity depends on how efficiently the people can produce and consume information. It is critically dependent on a very highly educated labor force. Needless to say that agriculture and industries will continue to need labor as well and that that labor would not need to be highly educated. Conversely, if a population is very minimally educated, then it can only be engaged in agriculture; if the population is moderately educated, it can move up to manufacturing.
So at the highest level of abstraction we can reasonably say this. Prosperity in the world to come depends on how highly educated the population is. So those economies that are able to create the most effective and efficient educational system will count. The rest will be forever falling behind.
Most of India lives in the agricultural age because overall our educational system is only able to supply to that. A small part of India lives in the industrial age. That part is increasing but slowly because of the inability of the educational system to provide the human resources required. Less than one percent of India lives in the information age. To a first approximation, the Indian educational system does not create any human resources for the India to live in the information age.
This is a dismal assessment. But there is nothing in the laws of the universe that actually prevents the Indian educational system from creating what is needed for India to prosper. What is lacking is the understanding, the vision, and the will of the people and their leaders.