On information and speed and mind’s problems

Canadian Tim Maly’s blog Quiet Babylon–“A website about cyborgs & architects”–is a blog examining the intersections between humanity and high technology, about trhe ways in which human thinking and identity will be altered by increasingly potent information technologies. A string of three posts–Friday’s “Averting Disaster”, Saturday’s “Information Half-Life” and Sunday’s “Information Half-Life II”–took a look at the problems relating to the speed of human information processing and the structural problems of the human mind that lead us to judge matters badly. Friday:

Humans are really bad at this. We judge decisions based on the results. This would make sense if results were strictly dependent on our decision, but they’re not. There’s a whole world of other forces that come into play. The important insight is that if you take a bet and lose, that does not retroactively make it a bad bet. It was a good or a bad bet at the moment that you made it, and the outcome does not change this fact. (Correspondingly, if you make a bad bet and win, that doesn’t retroactively make it a good bet.)

It is possible for the outcome to shed additional light on your bet, perhaps by highlighting a force or factor that you had failed to account for, but otherwise, outcomes don’t reach backwards in time to change the status of decisions. When you make a risk management decision, you are dealing with many worlds. When you are living with the consequences, you are dealing with only the one you ended up with. The fact that in 60% of the other worlds you are drinking champagne from a trophy is cold comfort.


In the early days of Twitter, when people were still making jokes about sandwiches and that media was conducting positively embarrassing interviews with the founders, there was a lot of discussion about what Twitter was for. The vision that Twitter settled on was to be the pulse of the planet. And so they set themselves to the task of getting real good at providing us with realtime information exchange.

The unexamined assumption is the same as in live TV reporting, that real time information MATTERS. I submit that it doesn’t, it really, really doesn’t in most contexts. Japan’s nuclear problem is like the story of Gabrielle Giffords’ changing health status and the soul searching that the media did afterwards. It does not matter that we had bad information for 30 minutes. It does not matter that Giffors was briefly thought to be dead and then turned out to be only mostly dead. Because for most of the world, that information does not matter within the granularity of the time that it was bad information.

At this moment, the current status of the nuclear plants in Japan matters for about 200,000 people in the world. This is the number of people who can do anything about it. Most of those 200,000 people can only decide whether or not to flee further away. They need information at the 15-minute scale probably. A very tiny minority of the people need information at the moment to moment scale. This is the team of people tasked with bringing the reactors under control. For the rest of us, we need information at the daily scale or less. Because the ramifications of Japan reactor situation IF THEY MATTER AT ALL matter in regard to decisions made at the scale of decades and centuries.


Neal Stephenson’s Anathem imagines a setting where monks who seal themselves off for a year, decade, century, or millennium are listened to with great intensity. Their practice is called the Discipline. When they emerge every year, decade, century, or millennium it is for 10 days and it is called Apert.

It would be an interesting practice to conduct a series of mini-Disciplines, with mini-Aperts. Perhaps disconnecting for 6 out of 7 days. It would be even more interesting to layer the Discipline with informational relevance. Imagine setting up sets of feeds such that each one had a schedule of windows when you could check in on it and topics were linked to the appropriate schedule. Imagine having little homunculi that were smart enough to sort news for you, passing off what your loved ones were up to moment to moment but holding information about the stock market at bay for 5 years, then giving you the best information for the brief period that you needed it. Maybe you need to know about what’s going on with the reactors in Japan on a weekly or monthly basis. Maybe your neighbour who is involved in CANDU reactor safety inspections needs daily updates.

To some degree, the need for different time scales of information is known. It’s why most democracies have two houses with representatives that hold office for different lengths of time. It’s why there are specialist presses and then more generalist news organs. But there are obvious points of failure. 24 hour news networks, and the corresponding political tactical unit, “the news cycle” are one. The misinformation echo chamber and the routine failure of corrections to catch up with shocking headlines is another.

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