The Babel Problem

Babel TowerSome self-centric perspectives shared using social media creating a communication failure got me thinking more about information and how it affects us, as individuals, and how it affects humanity. It’s also something that I’ve been researching off and on, and one which has me working on a hobby software project related to it.

Information is everywhere. We’re all pattern recognition and information analysis experts in our own right. It’s a part of being human, as Stephen Pinker wrote about in the context of language, which is one of the  ways that we process and communicate information. There is the nature aspect, and there is the nurture aspect, which is often seen as a matter of which has more influence.

This is particularly interesting in this day and age for a variety of reasons, particularly when interacting using social media.

Language is the most obvious barrier, and translation algorithms are getting much better – but interpretation of translations leaves much to be desired at times. Another aspect is dialect, born of geography, which do not always translate well. There are some who will argue about cultural identity, but if cultural identity isolates, what use is that identity?

Another aspect is the ability of people to actually read and write to be understood.  While we may have a lot more literacy in the world than we did some decades ago, functional literacy is something different and is something that educational systems only measure within their own dialects. This leads to how people think, because people typically communicate as clearly as they think. And what affects how we think?

We get into world views – a factor of nurture, largely, and the ability to process the information of our world clearly. The most obvious aspect of these prejudices has to do with the color of skin of human beings – something that haunts us despite scientific evidence that there are no actual races. Other things are less obvious.

There are commonalities, as mentioned in a very thorough exploration by Pierre Levy in “The Semantic Sphere“, that weave commonality through concepts around the world despite language – but they can fail in that last mile of neurons, as people may have very different reactions to the same concepts.

When it comes to all of this, I live a very different life and look at things, at times, in very different ways than others. This has allowed me to sometimes solve problems that others could not solve.

Everyone looks at things differently, but commonly, people don’t look at things that differently when they read what everyone else reads, watch what everyone else watches, and thus think fairly closely to what other people think.

That, in turn, gives us the codification of problems in a way that is sometimes more popular than correct, and thus any solution may be solving the wrong problem. It’s a convoluted mess when you start thinking about it (and worse, trying to express it as I am here).

And that, really, is the core of this post. A thought of why the people who come up with appropriate solutions are typically the ones who can identify what the problems actually are… in a world of popularity.



Information Fiefdoms

Social Media Information OverloadYesterday, I found myself standing in Nigel Khan’s bookstore in Southpark, looking at what I consider old books.

I have a habit when I look at books, something I picked up in Trinidad some years ago after the Internet became more than a novelty. I check the date a book was published. It keeps me from buying antiques, though I have also been known to buy books in thrift shops abroad (though I am very picky).

I found myself looking at Tim Wu’s ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires‘. Given some of the stuff I’d been talking about in different circles, it interested me – and Tim Wu I knew from his work with Network Neutrality. I checked the publication date.

November, 2010.
It’s August, 2018.

8 years. 5.33 evolutions of Moore’s Law, which is unfair since it isn’t a technology book – but it’s an indicator. Things change quickly. Information empires rise and fall in less time these days – someone was celebrating integrating something with OneNote in one of the groups I participate in, thinking that he’d finally gotten things on track – when, in fact, it’s just a snapshot more subject to Moore’s Law than anyone cares admit – except for the people who want to sell you more hardware and more software. They’ve evolved to the subscription model to make their financial flow rates more consistent, while you, dear subscriber, don’t actually own anything you subscribe to.

You’re building a house with everything on loan from the hardware store. When your subscription is up, the house disappears.

Information empires indeed. Your information may be your own, but how you get to it is controlled by someone who might not be there tomorrow.

We tend to think of information in very limited ways when we are in fact surrounded by it. We are information. From our DNA to our fingerprints, from our ears to our hair follicles – we are information, information that moves around and interacts with other information. We still haven’t figured out our brains, a depressing fact since it seems a few of us have them, but there we have it.

Information empires. What separates data from information is only really one thing – being used. Data sits there; it’s a scalar. Information is a vector – and really, information has more than one vector. Your mother is only a mother to you – she might be an aunt to someone else, a boss to someone else, an employee to someone else, and a daughter to your grandmother. Information allows context, and there’s more than one context.

If you’re fortunate, you see at least one tree a day. That tree says a lot, and you may not know it. Some trees need a lot of water, some don’t. Some require rich soil, some don’t. Simply by existing, it tells us about the environment it is in. Information surrounds us.

Yet we tend to think of information in the context of libraries, or of database tables. And we tend to look at Information Empires – be they by copyright, by access (Net Neutrality, digital divide, et al), or simply because of incompatible technologies. They come and go, increasingly not entering the public domain, increasingly lost – perhaps sometimes for good.

And if you go outside right now and stand, breathing the air, feeling the wind, watching the foliage shift left and right, you are awash in information that you take for granted – an empire older than we are, information going between plants through fungus.

There are truly no information empires in humanity other than those that are protected by laws. These are fiefdoms, gatekeepers to information.

The information empire – there is only one – surrounds us.