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James Gleick visited the RSA this week to promote his new book The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood. Jonathan Rowson shares his thoughts of the event, which you can listen to.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

TS Eliot, The Rock 1934

Gleick’s book explores the very idea of information, its role in communication, how it began to be broken up into ‘bits’, how it differs from data, and when and how it becomes meaningful. The book also deals with the impact of the telegraph, the printing press, and the internet.

Was Eliot right to suggest, almost a century ago, that information is a monster that feeds off itself, while starving us of meaning, knowledge and wisdom? Gleick did not seem to think so, and appeared fairly sanguine in general. At one point, in answer to a question of how we might better deal with the flood of information he paused, smiled, and gave a rye answer: “That question is synonymous with: ‘Should we be better people?’”

He said that no matter how easy it becomes to find and store facts, there will always be essential creative and analytical work to do. Other highlights included his opening story about a New York Times article: How the Internet Tried to Kill Me about a psychologist googling himself on in 2011 and discovering that he died in 1997 (‘Serves him right’, quipped Gleick).

The author explored the link between information and entropy, and argued that the internet helped us get beyond the illusion that knowledge is fixed. At one point he posed a pertinent question to anybody sending out more information (just a quick email…): “Am I adding value, or am I just adding to the noise?”

What I took away from Gleick’s work was the importance of clarifying the relationship between information and attention. No individual can control the growing quantity of information, and I learned in a recent Guardianarticle that it is not easy to control the quality either. Techno-pessimist Nicholas Carr believes improved filters may exacerbate the problem of information overload, because the surfeit of information becomes even more burdensome when it is filtered to be particularly important and interesting.

So what can we control? It is not easy, but we have to learn to better control our attention, which is an important aspect of the RSA’s Social Brain project’s emerging perspective on behaviour change. With all this information flooding our senses, we need to create not just spam filters on our computers, but better attention filters in our minds. We can learn to do this, for instance through various forms of mindfulness. If we better understand our own minds, we may be able to put information in-formation, and thereby survive the flood.

Dr Jonathan Rowson leads the Social Brain project at the RSA.


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