February 19, 2011

"Unknown Knowns" - Is The Current Flood Of Information Drowning Our Ability To Find Meaning?

Big Data's Parallel Universe Brings Fears, And A Thrill by Dennis Overbye, The New York Times, Science, June 4, 2012
The Age Of Big Data, by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, Sunday Review, The Opinion Pages, February 11, 2012
The Elusive Big Idea by Neal Gabler, The New York Times, Sunday Review, Opinion Pages, August 13, 2011
The Theory of Everything (Sort Of) by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, Sunday Review, Opinion Pages, August 13, 2011
"Explaining it All:  How We Became the Center of the Universe," The Beginning of Infinity:  Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch reviewed by David Albert, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, August 12, 2011
"Information Is Cheap, Meaning Is Expensive" by George Dyson, The European, October 17, 2011
So What Do We Do With All This Data?, Smithsonian.com, Innovations, January 23, 2011

Does it matter?  For example, does it matter when our leaders take major actions risking our citizens' blood and nation's treasure after they ignore meanings and facts that must be derived from raw information?  Is such leadership wise?

Former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld:

"[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know."

But, Rumsfeld failed to mention that there are also what I call "unknown knowns" - that is to say things about which we have a lot of information but to which we have not yet given meaning and therefore do not adequately understand.

One could well argue that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld waged war against Iraq based on "unknown knowns."  That is, they had a lot of information about Iraqi history and culture but did not analyze it enough or give it meaning.  Or, they just chose to ignore the meaningful knowledge that had been provided them.

Had they converted the enormous amount of raw information they had about Iraq into meaningful knowledge, or heeded the warnings of those who possessed and briefed them on such, they might not have decided to start the 2003 Iraq war.  Then again, there are good indicators that they would likely have started that war with or without meaningful knowledge about Iraqi history and culture.

That being the case, one could also argue that they were knowledgeable of the history of US blunders in the Middle East, and elsewhere, blunders that occured due in large part to not taking into account the historical and cultural facts of a nation or region, yet chose to doom themselves to repeat that misadventurous history anyway.

There's information, meaningful knowledge, and wisdom.  Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld had plenty of the first, ignored the second, and consequently showed themselves lacking in the third.  Amazingly, a majority of American voters nevertheless gave Bush a second term in office....  And here's the destructive result of the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:  "The True Cost of 9/11," by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Slate, September 1, 2011

The following is a book review on the gap between the ever-growing amount of information and Humankind's ability to give it meaning.  Though it was not either writer's main intent, I think the review and the book also make a good argument for prefering the provisional knowledge of science versus the absolute knowledge of religion, or any other inflexible dogma regarding truth.

How We Know - A Review of James Gleick's Book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by Freeman Dyson from The New York Review of Books, March 10, 2011.  An excerpt:

"The explosive growth of information in our human society is a part of the slower growth of ordered structures in the evolution of life as a whole. Life has for billions of years been evolving with organisms and ecosystems embodying increasing amounts of information. The evolution of life is a part of the evolution of the universe, which also evolves with increasing amounts of information embodied in ordered structures, galaxies and stars and planetary systems. In the living and in the nonliving world, we see a growth of order, starting from the featureless and uniform gas of the early universe and producing the magnificent diversity of weird objects that we see in the sky and in the rain forest. Everywhere around us, wherever we look, we see evidence of increasing order and increasing information."

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