The Impotence of (Most) Information

royAfter doing some yard work this morning, I spent some time observing the birds and mammals in and around our little piece of wetland. Mostly the usual suspects, though a white-tailed deer showed up to feed on the mix of grass and weeds that represents a first succession back towards wilderness of land that, until 25 years ago, had been clearcut and farmed for the preceding century. Farming ceased when the moraine soil, not great at the best of times, was exhausted. The area around the ponds, spared a century of the saw, the scythe and the thresher, has remained in wilderness, though it is not pristine and has been under constant siege from non-native species (the frogs tell me it is succeeding, for now, at fending them off). But on the former farmland, the area that has not been planted with either domesticated grasses or trees is a flurry of weeds and wild grasses, on its way back to the shrubs and trees which for millennia blanketed our entire region, at least between the ice ages.

I was talking away to the birds and the animals, thinking out loud, telling them that I couldn’t understand how, in this age of overwhelming proliferation and availability of information, ignorance seems everywhere to reign supreme. They looked at me for awhile, and then went back to feeding, foraging, playing, arguing with each other — whatever it was they were doing before I arrived. I realized, as I often do, that through their actions they were giving me the answer to my puzzle. The information I was giving them didn’t mean anything to them, so they ignored it.

So it is with humans. So much information, all of it meaning nothing.

I have been reading a lot of Arundhati Roy’s work lately, because she is a wonderful writer who manages to find a lot of meaning in information. This is not easy, but it can be done. She tells us, largely through stories, why imperialism and globalization, even when well-intentioned, are scourges. She tells us the history of empire, of power and of powerlessness, and of what those things have wrought. She knows a great deal about irrigation and hydro-electric power, because she has seen what dams have done to her native India. She knows a great deal about the interference of Britain and the US in the affairs of other nations, because she has seen what that interference has done to the vast majority of the world’s people. She knows a lot about how states and corporations really work, because she cares deeply about justice and freedom and finds states and corporations astonishingly competent at spreading and sustaining injustice and tyranny.

As someone profoundly informed about all these things, she feels obliged to share this information with others. She does this through her novels, essays and speeches, cleverly, sometimes angrily, but without either personal political ambition or proffered answers to the horrific problems she describes. She compiles and relates facts and tells stories that provide context for them.

For most people, her facts and stories mean nothing. The fact that successive American governments, mostly through the CIA, have been complicit in dozens of undemocratic actions and atrocities in almost every struggling or US-hostile nation on the planet means nothing. They must have had their reasons. It is not our business. We’re just citizens.

The fact that imperialism and globalization are driving most of the struggling nations of the world to the brink of ecological catastrophe, financial bankruptcy, civil war and anti-state terrorism means nothing. This is all beyond our comprehension. We trust the government and the market to handle all this complex stuff, if only because we really have no other choice. If it works for us, why shouldn’t it work for them? If we were all the same, all living the American way (God’s way), all speaking English (God’s language), we wouldn’t have anything to fight about, would we?

Information has meaning only when we have enough context to understand its import, what it ‘brings to us’. Implicit in import is that this information enables us to live better lives, either by better understanding why things are the way they are, or by realizing what we need to do as a result of it. Some information is immediately and obviously actionable — give me the information that my house is on fire and I’ll call 911 and start evacuating. Some information improves our understanding in a way that will probably be useful to us in the future — tell me the plants that are truly native to this area and I’ll recall them the next time I start a planting project. But a lot of information, while it may improve our understanding of why things are the way they are, is clearly not now, and won’t likely ever be, actionable. There is nothing we can do about it, except, if it’s troubling information, get anxious — tell me about the latest survey showing the Arctic is melting at a speed three times what scientists were saying just last year, and you’ll just get me upset.

At best, such information is interesting or enjoyable — the neighbours’ baby is in love with their neighbours’ puppy, and the two have become inseparable. To be meaningful, such information needs to be personal — if it’s a stranger’s baby and puppy, you better have pictures. But even if it’s interesting or enjoyable, it’s useless, un-actionable. And if it’s un-actionable and neither interesting nor enjoyable, then I don’t want to know. Sorry, most of the world would tell Ms. Roy, I don’t want to hear the sad story about how the dams that were supposed to bring water to drought-stricken Gujurati are actually making the situation worse. I can’t do anything about that. Go away. Somebody change the station.

Unless they arouse schadenfreude, such information usually just makes us feel anxious and impotent. I just flipped through a whole week’s newspapers, over 300 stories in total, and there wasn’t a single item that was personally actionable. Only 12 of the stories improved my understanding in a way that might be useful to me in the future. The rest of them, including a lot of articles that made me angry or sparked some other emotion, were useless. Beyond a brief emotional provocation and the consequent wish I hadn’t read them at all, they were meaningless.

Why is the death toll in the Indonesian quake meaningless to me, while Ms. Roy’s facts about India’s dams are meaningful? Because her information includes both detail and analysis. The detail allows me to appreciate the veracity of the analysis. The analysis fits with other information I have read about dams being mostly a colossal and destructive waste of money. Rather than feeling impotent, I feel informed — it has (by providing more evidence) credibly reinforced my views about dams, and deepened my understanding of them.

Same thing with yesterday’s article about the US elections — the depth of detail and analysis moved me from thinking the election had possibly been stolen to believing it was probably stolen.

Meanwhile, I’m left completely cold by the ton of information that I get every day about Bush & Co’s (including his lapdogs Blair, Howard, and now Harper) dirty tricks, lies, and the horrific damage they cause. Why? Why is information about Indian dams meaningful to me and information about Harper’s latest reneging on Kyoto not? Because Roy gives me new information — she explains why the Indian government thought it would be useful to build these dams, and why it actually wasn’t. That’s information that I might well find useful in future (in my youth I fought furiously, and in vain, against the Manitoba government’s massive flooding of the province’s northern wilderness for hydro dam projects). I already know why Harper is reneging on Kyoto (because he owes Big Oil lots of favours for financing his campaign, and because he genuinely, ideologically believes in deregulation without limit).

I find the vast majority of business information I receive is likewise useless and meaningless. Most of it is “best practices” or “benchmarks” — things that have presumably been proven to work in one business and hence could apply in others. From personal experience, I know most “best practices” are PR frauds, and I know most of them don’t translate to other companies because every business is different. Occasionally I’ll find one that has lots of detail (the full story) and unusually candid analysis (what didn’t work, not just what did, and why), but they’re few and far between.

None of the mainstream media — newspapers, magazines, TV — has enough time or space or budget to provide a meaningful level of detail or analysis (I’d except the rare magazine like The New Yorker and Consumer Reports from this generalization). Investigative reporting just doesn’t pay these days.

So we’re left with thin, context-free information that is meaningless and un-actionable, whose only effect is a (brief) emotional charge, lingering information anxiety, and a case of ‘information impotence’.

What can we do? Three things:

  1. Acquire the personal discipline to stop reading and listening to and watching shallow information media. Avoid especially the sensationalistic stuff that doesn’t even try to inform, just to shock us, but also avoid content that isn’t either (a) actionable (immediately or likely at some point in the future) or (b) presented with sufficient detail and analysis to at least get us to the point we understand much better why something is the way it is. Don’t avoid fiction — stories are the best way to provide detail and context, and even invented stories based on an author’s personal knowledge, in-depth research or exceptional imagination can be enormously informative.
  2. Re-evaluate your personal information networks to find (and then trust) people who can filter out the crap and point you to genuine information — detailed, well-analyzed, context-rich stuff that either is actionable or significantly deepens your understanding of subjects you care about. One of the greatest advantages of a blog is that it makes it easier to find such valuable friends. No one can keep up with everything that’s important alone.
  3. Develop a personal method to keep track of information that is important, and what you’re going to do about it, so that when you need it you can find it, and so that you act on it appropriately and promptly. This is my pet peeve with weblogs, etc.: Stuff disappears into the archives and gets lost, and too much focus is placed on how current information is, rather than how important it is.

Information impotence is another example of learned helplessness — we get overwhelmed, so we just give up. There are a lot of people out there exploiting that. Some of us need to staygenuinely informed to keep them honest. Or at least a little less dishonest.

This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Impotence of (Most) Information

  1. Mike says:

    These are all great ideas, Dave! I especially like how you followed your own advice and gave clear, actionable items at the end. I think a lot of people are aware of the problems of poor media (well, not ENOUGH people, but many more than there used to be), and are doing their best to find solid, reliable sources. The big question is #3. We now have all these great tools available to us. But how do we use them efficiently and effectively? That’s something with which I still wrestle, and would love to read suggestions as to the best way to use, in combination, these tools.

  2. Pearl says:

    Interesting filtering concept “actionable information”. It is goo tool for separating wheat from chaff adn what “non-thinkers” do naturally but people who are more verbal lose sight of in all our ceonceptualizing. Will it serve me? What can I do concretely. Nothing? then forget about it.Throwing the net a little wider and deciding there are some things taht can be done and yet keeping oneself from being overhwlemed is a tricky thing. Media had high redundancy. If it’s reinforcing what I already know, maybe I can move on. It’s funny how I was looking at a magazine rack adn was tempted by all these lovely layouts but to pause and scan. Cycling: diet and exercise. Buddhism: diet and exercise. Woman’s weekly: di and exercise. Weight lifting: diet and exercise. Health today: diet and exercise. Movie stars this minute mag: diet adn exercise secrets. If the media has a predictable lean we can throw out most of that information as not adding more as well. If the subtext is: get rid of Bush or star cheats, is anything useful or actionable being added or is it just noise? It’s easy to get tired out of the noise pollution of all that even as it is all terribly exciting like a music concert that overstimulates with the barrage. One ha to learn to step away and let the mind-body settle out of the dust into the clear-eyed always has a call for action/response with each post. In the latest Ode magazine they highlight a new book called 365 Way to Change the World by Michael Norton. Anyway, I’ve talked way long enough. Thanks for the psot.

  3. James Samuel says:

    Hi Dave, if you are enjoying Arundhati Roy’s work, you will almost certainly enjoy a piece of film which visualizes her words, specifically her famous Come September speech, where she spoke on such things as the war on terror, corporate globalization, justice and the growing civil unreast. Witty, moving, alarming and quite a lesson in history. See – Interestingly, this film has been put into the public domain anonomously and is “going viral”

  4. Dave, you are getting better! More power to your elbow…Best regards.

  5. Daniel says:

    this is bad news;Scary stuff, as Canada begins to be singled out by Taliban commanders due to the increasing long term presence in Afghanistan, and the list of Western countries that have not yet been directly affected by Islamic fundamentalist extremism dwindles to pretty much Italy and Canada. would you deal with this type of news? is it actionable?. I believe we all have to think about security because if we let others we only get more “wars”.

  6. Anne says:

    Thanks for putting both action and scholarship as reasons for obtaining and keeping information.

  7. Daniel says:

    Thanks James, very interesting video!

  8. Gary says:

    About that video: It’s a case of walking in another’s shoes – except it is seeing from another’s eyes!!!!!! It’s a humbling – yet necessary thing to do – to see yourself from some else’ view point. It is the best way to learn about yourself. It’s like a mirror – not always your friend. So – how does an entire country do that?Gary

Comments are closed.