Tuesday, 30 March 2010

we are reliably informed

It is said that we live in the information age. Unfortunately, we’re not vouchsafed any guarantees as to the veracity or accuracy of the information on offer. And, paraphrasing C. Northcote Parkinson, to make matters worse, information increases in volume to fill the means available for its transmission. It has always been so.

All forms of primitive communication over distance, from the bullroarer, known throughout the world, to African drums and Native American smoke signals, have one thing in common: lack of bandwidth. This means that any message that is to be transmitted must be both simple and important. Clearly, there is no point in a message being capable of more than one interpretation, so there is no room for subtlety, and complex messages are impossible. Everything must be direct and to the point. I leave the question of who adjudicates in matters of importance for the moment.

Now look what happens with the invention of the electric telegraph. First, it becomes possible, thanks to Morse code, to transmit messages that are precise in meaning; second, there is a huge increase in the speed and range of transmission. And both greater precision and faster transmission mean that more messages can be sent in a given time. It is inevitable that some messages will be less important than others, and as the technology spreads, it also becomes inevitable that some messages aren’t important at all, whatever criteria you choose to adopt.

As new means of message transmission have come on stream, the trend towards unimportance and/or irrelevance in messages has intensified exponentially and has now reached the point where it has become almost impossible to avoid being swamped by what can only be described as ‘noise’. Only a very small proportion of the messages being transmitted in the modern era have content that is useful.

What I will call the information pyramid succinctly describes the current state of play. At the base are the billions of messages that are ephemeral, irrelevant or simply pointless. The messages posted on social networking sites and published in celebrity gossip columns fall unequivocally into this category. The next step in the hierarchy can be described as ‘information’ and has this characteristic: that it is useful beyond mere amusement or titillation. However, if that information is used only once before being allowed to sink back into the background noise, then its potential may be wasted.

On the other hand, translating this information into ‘knowledge’ requires a level of intellectual engagement that has become ever more difficult to sustain in the modern climate of triviality and superficial discourse. It also requires the ability to discriminate between the merely useful and the genuinely important.

Attaining the apex of the pyramid, which can be described as ‘wisdom’, is a lonely endeavour that few will attempt and that requires a superhuman effort. And, in a bizarre reversal of definitions, the attainment of such wisdom is likely to be seen by those who cannot distinguish between noise and information as pointless and irrelevant. Unfortunately, wisdom is always denigrated by people who do not or cannot understand it. Clever people are invariably viewed with suspicion.


  1. There is something for everyone on the "information highway."

  2. Dennis:

    I read somewhere: "Information today is suckling greedily from the udders of Wikipedia."

    In today's instant world, slow wisdom is seldom appreciated. Leave alone thinking of wisdom, many even do not know that there is something like that.

    Dennis, I would be interested to know your thoughts on blogging.

    Joy always,

  3. Susan, that’s a harder question than you realize. To be honest, I’ve never thought about it much. Last November, an old school friend emailed me to say he’d just started a blog and (knowing I like to write) asked why didn’t I start one too. So I did. I haven’t thought much beyond that, except that I enjoy it.

  4. Denis, I like this one very much. I always differentiate information, knowledge and wisdom, and in the exactly same hierarchical order as you put in the pyramid. I think people now are all confused about these three. Or maybe people have always been confused about them through history.

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