|After 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:
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.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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