19 August 2007

The Big Lie of the Information Age

Tor Norretranders quotes Lewis Carroll near the end of his provocative book, The User Illusion.
"That's another thing we've learned from your Nation," said Mein Herr, "map-making. But we've carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?"
"About six inches to the mile."
""Only six inches!"exclaimed Mein Herr. "We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!"
"Have you used it much?" I enquired.
"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr: "the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.

Norretranders points out that the information age is actually an age with very little information. We distill so much of what happens into statistics that are supposed to be representative of a deeper reality.

Imagine that you went on a walk through an orchard. The trees are planted in a line, but each tree trunk traces its own uniquely curved path. Unseen birds sing, you watch others land in nearby branches, noting how the wings of one glisten. The sun shines a dappled pattern onto the ground, the leaves creating a random pattern of dark and light on the ground and on your skin as you walk between the trees. As you are watching this, you walk into a branch that pokes your skin, leaving a small incision, a new sore that will draw your attention throughout the next few days. You reach between the leaves and branches to find about 30 choice apples. One you discarded because it had a caterpillar. Another you discard because a bird has begun to eat it. You take these apples back to your grandfather's old juicer and run the apples through it. The smell is nearly intoxicating as the pulp is separated from the juice. You take a glass of juice from the juicer inside and share it with a friend.

That juice is not a lie. It is at best a memory of the orchard. Oddly enough, though, it becomes a memory substitute for the person who drinks it without the experience of the orchard.

So much of the modern world has become like that. Much of modern management is based on this notion that the juice is close enough to the orchard to closely represent it. Spreadsheets with numbers become a substitute for understanding a school or business, become a representation for those vastly rich and incompressible realities.

The Information Age has stripped away so much information in order to make it seem possible to represent the world with just information. Straight roads with standard width lanes have replaced meandering trails, making it possible to represent the road with lines on a paper.

It is a wonderful thing that we've learned how to represent people and places with so little information. It is a tragedy when we think that these representations, these simplifications, are an actual substitute for such people and things.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So much of our lives, everything from applying for a loan to getting a job, depends on how a computer algorithm interpets the data on the form.

There's a lot of things I like about modern technology- modern dentistry, for example, is a marvelous thing- but there's an awful lot of bad that came in with the good.