How does an information society collapse? Is it in information overload, as some people seem to believe? If so – what does that mean?
Remember the key value chain model for information: [data – information – knowledge – wisdom] – so where does the collapse occur? Herbert Simon pointed out that there is one point of collapse between information and knowledge. 1 See his paper on information wealth here. When we don’t have enough attention to turn information into knowledge the value chain fails, and we experience something like information overload. But there is also another failure point – between data and information.
The whole value chain can be described as a single process: data is structured into information and interpreted into knowledge where it matures into wisdom. The ability to structured data is something that computers have helped us with – and still help us with – but as data becomes more abundant, there is a point at which the average quality of data no longer allows us to effectively structure data into information. We can call this failure data overload, but it is more accurately a noise problem.2 Noise problems have interested me a long time – my dissertation was about how noise would change the way we view copyright, free expression and privacy.
Noise points in information ecosystems can be described in many different ways – one way is to simple look at the value of the time need to structure data into information and the value of that information, and then observe that when the average value of the time we need to structure data into information is more valuable than the resultant information, well, then we have a problem.
What are some scenarios where this could happen? One possibility is that someone builds noise sources through-out our information ecosystem, maliciously. Engines of noise that produce data that simply drown out any data with signal value. Such noise sources have so far not emerged, and when they have they have been so localised that we have been able to address them. Spam is an example where the value of email could have collapsed under the pressure of spam, but we managed to build really good filters – because spam exhibited strong patterns that we could react to.
John von Neumann once imagined a horrifying machine that could build copies of itself from raw materials extracted from a large variety of environments. Such a machine – sent out in the universe – would replicate itself at the cost of the material universe and soon end up being all there is. 3 See more here. We can imagine a close analogue of this in a noise Neumann machine that rewrites data and information it picks up everywhere and then uses that information to produce new information, endlessly. Such Noise Neumann Machines roaming the networks could also use some of that data they ingest to rewrite how they rewrite data so that no clear or distinct pattern in the rewriting can be detected.
So maybe that is how the information society ends – not with a bang, but in noise.