A Riddle of Smarter vs. Dumber

Clearly we are living in and through a lot of transitions in our rapidly changing world. Perhaps one of the biggest changes we face is how we learn daily what we need — and want — to know and learn about concerning what is going on in the world around us.

Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, despite his many failings, got one thing very right when he said one of our biggest enemies in life is when we are unaware that we do not know what we do not know. That sounds like a circular thought, but it is all too real and right. Intelligent beings can only protect themselves and advance their goals if they have a realistic sense of the limits of their knowledge and skills and then probe what they know they do not know with insight and judgment.

For the first thousands of years of human existence the only means we had to learn was through our eyes and ears, limited to what was actually in front of us or physically within earshot.

We still, of course, have those same (perhaps somewhat enhanced) physical capabilities, and we have been using them with increasing sophistication in the last several hundred years.

In addition, what was and is between our ears (our brains) evolved very rapidly at the same time. With the growth of human knowledge and information came ever more ability and need to receive and process even more information, which became an essential part of life.

When humans learned to write and, of course, read, that started to push the need for ever more information exponentially, as still more and more people learned to read and write.

Then Gutenberg invented printing to replace laborious, slow and expensive manual copying. Soon, mass-produced books and newspapers began to spread rapidly and the knowledge and information explosion (which we also talked about with the advent of the internet) really began. That was almost like the BIG BANG, which was (if you want to believe it) the beginning of the universe and everything in it.

Things went along swimmingly for half a millennium. Books, pamphlets and periodicals became widely available and widely consumed, and remained so until very recently, when the newest digital technologies began to displace them with more efficient and accessible sources of acquiring all forms of information.

One of the most important contributions to the printed word was that editors made judgments about what and how to present information to readers. And, because that process of editing invited competition (at least wherever there was freedom of the press), receivers of information were able to choose and rely on their selected sources.

Now in the 21st century, internet-based sources of largely free news and knowledge are beginning to seriously edge out the old, edited print sources that were paid for because the buyers valued them. But, when the preferred and available price was nothing, everything began to change radically.

Internet information comes largely unfiltered, unedited and, frequently, unverified simply because it exists in digital form and can be scooped up and seen by anyone, anytime. And, ‘seeing simply becomes believing’.

Most of us get up in the morning thinking “What is the news today?” Some of us also think “What happened yesterday that I never knew anything about before, but, if I had known there was something to know, I would have wanted to know?”

Up to now, most of us have relied on daily ‘information fixes’ from the New York TimesWall Street Journal and local versions of the same sort.

But what happens ‘tomorrow’ when there is nothing out there except ‘everything’ – a vast, unfathomable pile of information that has not been focused reliably for readers. How will people be able to learn what they do not know, what they need and want to know?

There must be some reasonable means for the essential people in the chain of news gathering and dissemination to obtain enough income to make their efforts worthwhile. This need really is not being addressed yet because of the misplaced belief that the right price is zero. As a result, the economics of journalism are in free fall.

Because of the need to ensure that there is an intermediate process to filter and qualify news, could government, in this transitional period, try to establish standards and create a mechanism [perhaps even a tiny transactional tax] for “media managers” to earn an appropriate amount to keep alive this essential element in the news process, in a way that keeps government out of the process except to insure that the private sector can stay productively involved? Government does have a real stake in keeping the private editorial process alive and well.

There are a few mechanisms being developed that may allay some of these concerns. One is RSS, which can deliver a check list of sources and subjects to your inbox. But RSS is only as good as the sources to which the reader subscribes, and which might not include the things that person wants to know but did not know until after the fact. RSS also falls short in supplying reliable, edited information, and in economics

Another is a more robust form of artificial intelligence which constantly ‘reads’ a person’s email and social media and tracks the news they consume to try to figure out, better than that person herself, what she needs and wants to know.

The riddle is that the more information there is and the easier it gets to find it, if one knows what one wants to look for (both of which are the case today), the more difficult it is becoming to be reliably and timely informed in a substantive way.

If there is an answer to the puzzle, it must lie in finding a way to convince consumers of information that the best way to be ‘well and timely’ informed is to be able, willing and required to pay a reasonable price to the people whom they choose to rely on as the sources of their wisdom.

In a world where the ‘best’ price is no price, except for the distraction of ads, we are doomed to be dumber as we get smarter, even while we are drowning in all the information imaginable.

Years ago, when the builder of the biggest, fastest analog computer at that time, with all the information in the world in it, demonstrated it, he asked for the toughest question anyone could think of to ask it to show how smart it was.

What he was asked was “is there a God”? The computer immediately answered: “YES, there is now!”

Should we begin to wonder?


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