Monday, 24 January 2011

Too Much Information

Norbert Wiener

There was a time when the phrase "too much information" referred to a friend's unusual propensity to reveal a superabundance of intimate detail regarding recent amorous encounters. However, at the beginning of the second decade of the third millennium the cliché has been restored to its primary meaning. But the mere act of expressing the fact that there is too much information now puts us all in something of a fix. In order to make the point that there is too much information we only add to the information. It is surely time to return the words 'knowledge' and 'wisdom' to a central place in our culture. And time is what both of those words require.

The father of modern cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, whose work on the study of feedback helped popularise the idea of the information loop, and hence that most fashionable of notions of being 'in the loop', believed, in the way that only a scientist truly can, in the improvement of the species. This story, as told in James Harkin's compelling book Cyburbia, needs to be read. We would adjust and adapt in response to a continuing stream of information Wiener suggested, improve our direction, evade capture or destruction, move ever onwards with an improved sense of momentum and purpose.

However, in our age of global information witness, when we are all looking at, commenting upon and sharing the same information, the space for the radical, the surprise that refashions a conception of where we are going, unsettles our conviction as to why we are going there and challenges our assumptions as to what we will find if ever we are to arrive at our destination, is shrinking. Perhaps it is now only to be found offline.

According to the OED 'cybernetics' comes from the Greek word kubernetes meaning 'steersman,' 'helmsman' or 'pilot'. The internet, in its current form, encourages us to pilot ourselves in the same direction, towards one another, in a carnival of communality. In the glorious rush of digital feedback, the automatic input and output, who is keeping a look out to check that we are not steering ourselves into an abyss? '