Tag Archives: Trump

Escalating Ignorance in the Information Age

Oxymoronic?  Perhaps, but true.  The more ‘information’ that we have produced in the past forty years of networked information systems and the internet, the less we seem to know or trust. We are in an era of information entropy in which more is less.

I remember six years ago when an acquaintance of mine mentioned that she did not have cable t.v.  I wondered how she could possibly keep informed of current events.  Two years later, I dropped it myself, never regretting my ‘loss’.  Subsequently, I have become progressively more selective in my reading, particularly on the web, finding  that much of what I have consumed provides less insight.

The information age has provided a wealth of data, but not a corresponding wealth of insight. Why is that? Let’s review.

  1.  Reality is changing at warp speed. Yesterday’s facts and truisms are being rapidly  rendered obsolete. This ain’t your granddaddy’s nothin’!
  2.  We are producing mountains of data, but proportionately less ‘information’ (remember: data and information are not the same) .
  3.  The information that we do produce from the data  is often without meaningful context or perspective, and therefore of limited utility, relevance or reliability in a world where context can change as quickly as facts, and perspectives proliferate.
  4.  The institutions and information intermediaries (the press, government, academia, science, professions , unprofessional organizations such as Facebook and Google) that we depend upon for reliable and trustworthy information have almost all been diminished by scandals as they have become ‘monetized’, or otherwise compromised directly or indirectly by economic forces which have bent their values to serve other objectives.
  5. Concerted efforts to distort or undermine or repudiate otherwise valid information have been refined and deployed with devastating effectiveness.
  6. We have become conditioned, if not programmed, to suspend, if not avoid, critical thinking in preference to simple or comforting dogmas, also known as ‘thought on auto-pilot’.  We have willingly become prisoners of our own illusions, or those which too many are willing to sell us, in a world where there are now too many factoids to make sense of very much for very long.

One of the interesting consequences of all this is that in many subtle ways we take more time to do things that once seemed so simple, or to make decisions that are now more difficult in an increasingly complex world. I remember standing in the soap isle of the local supermarket gazing at the various offerings of dishwasher detergent.  There before me was New and Improved, Extra New, Super Improved, and You Won’t Believe Your Eyes, all in similar but different containers by the same manufacturer, all at nearly the same price. Along came a lady who engaged in the same exercise as I.  After a few minutes, we looked at each other and asked ‘What’s the difference?’.  I could just grab one off the shelf and be done, but I’ve been programed to optimize; best value for the price. Ultimately, I just grabbed one off the shelf.  Now multiply this simple example across the plethora of shopping transactions. Recognize that this phenomenon applies to information as much as dishwasher soap. The default for decision gridlock is snap judgment which often leads to the unintended consequence of buyer’s remorse, and the oft resultant lament: ‘What was/were I/they thinking?’

At a higher level of consequence, business and governmental decisions become similarly captive of a world that is devolving from long assumed perceptions of homogeneity to ever more complex and finite sub-groups, sub-cultures, sub-markets, sub divisions; each with their peculiarities and potential risks to the unwary, and few of which we really understand.  Middle east peace? Climate Change? Healthcare policies? Renewable energy strategies? Transportation strategy? Tax reform? Nuclear energy?

So here we are at the pinnacle of the data-pile at which our economic elite, blessed with all the raw data and algorithms they possess, are risk averse to investing their parked trillions for fear of risks they cannot effectively define, and therefore cannot effectively hedge.

And our ‘intelligence services’ with their army of server farms cannot pro-act with reliability; only react once the threat has manifested itself.  You don’t need big data to set up a sting for the witless.  But all their data isn’t helping them to preempt the wily.

And government, which is more reactive than proactive by nature, works on old and fragmented systems evolved from  the vastness of its enterprise and the granularity of its operations as defined by ever more complex regulations; systems which are too big, too complex to upgrade, but too critical to let die.  This also applies to large corporations, which are bureaucratically not too far removed from government.

I do not consider myself an information Luddite.  By virtue of the very nature of my profession, I love good data; I crave good data; I pine for good data; but I also distrust all data until its reliability can be proven.  More is not necessarily better.

Our data and its infrastructure is steadily holding us captive while we perpetuate the delusion that it is setting us free.  Unwilling to accept this possibility, we double down on our bet on artificial intelligence (AI) as the means to master the data-pile and set us free. No doubt, AI will bring many advantages.

But it also holds the risk that in seeking to outsource our thinking and judgements to so-called sentient machines, we are inviting a concentration of power (think Amazon, Facebook and Google) and a potential for manipulation that enslaves rather than liberates us.  Given our own individual and collective imperfections as citizens, professionals and societies, is it reasonably plausible that we can create AI that transcends our manifest imperfections and biases, but is vastly more capable of the harm we can already do without AI’s assistance? Stated more simply, can imperfect humans create perfect machines, or merely machines more capable of leveraging our imperfections to greater consequence?

We need not look far to preview the risks. Darkness is descending as the Trump administration seizes the reins of power and systematically draws the shades on the windows of government.  Today it seeks to withhold information; to render us less informed. Today, as it has for the past two years, it perpetrates blatant lies, increasingly devoid of any subtlety, to propagate its world view.  Imagine what it might do once it has implanted its partisans where all the levers of information creation or influence are located.  Consider a modification of the adage: ‘To err is human; to really screw up takes a computer’.

The possibilities are exponential.

Happy Presidents’ Day.  Better ones are coming. Hopefully.

Onward

20170220

Advertisements

Facts may be optional. Reality Isn’t.

“People that say that facts are facts — they’re not really facts . . . there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd . . . are truth.”     Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate.

Last month, I was mildly disturbed to learn from the media that my profession of auditing, as well as the professions of science and journalism and medicine and to some degree law, have all been rendered irrelevant by a society that has elected to disregard fact and truths that emanate from facts, and embrace opinions posing as truths and  rooted in thin air,  grown in the hothouse of anger and ignorance.

Such was the result  of the election postmortem in which the Forces of Trump declared that facts no longer matter.  It’s what people choose to believe, by whatever means they come to their beliefs, dubious or otherwise.  You have to give them their due; their election results have validated their hypothesis, at least in the short-term.

But in the short or long-term, ‘truths’ must ultimately reconcile with reality, or they are not true.  Reality trumps belief.

I’m not worried about job security.  But my job and those of my colleagues in various organizations and capacities become more difficult when we operate in a world where our stakeholders demand the facts they want to hear to comport with the beliefs they cherish, rather than the facts they need to know in order to define the truths that will sustain them.

My profession of auditing is about reconciling ‘truths’ as have been reported  in financial statements to supporting facts, and reconciling those facts with reality.  Reality is the key here.  It is immutable.  It can be ignored for only so long, but eventually, it dominates.  See sub-prime mortgages, LIBOR, pension plan assumption of returns s on investment versus realized returns, unemployment statistics versus household income, the Boomer generation’s retirement aspirations versus asset accumulation, military budget versus military power effectively and conclusively applied, health spending versus health outcomes.

Let’s do a brief overview of the information ecosystem as it has evolved with human-kind.  In the beginning, all that humans needed to know confronted them directly and often overtly without any subtlety or obfuscation of intent: hunger, climate, illness and injury, bigger predators, or more aggressive predators of kind from two caves down the road.  Threats were immediate; responses were immediate or irrelevant; outcomes were immediately determinable and of little interest to anyone but the subject and his immediate dependents.

But we evolved, dare I use that term.  We learned from  experiences that informed our understanding of our environment, limited as it was, and we explored options. Our experience became intelligence, accumulated information that we could draw upon with the same utility as stone tools.  Intelligence gradually replaced emotion as our considered response to events that confronted us.  And as intelligence grew, we concluded that we could control events to our preferences rather than be at their mercy.

Eventually as we became more complex societies, probably due to facing more daunting challenges that could not be overcome alone, we determined the need to share information. Our languages and means of communicating evolved with the scope of our experience and the sphere of our social engagement.

Information at this stage became more symbolic as it was shared beyond the bounds of an individual’s personal experience or observation and confirmation.  And the more symbolic it became, the greater risk that  it diverged from the reality it represented.  So if I had two shiny rocks in my hand, I knew I had two shiny rocks in my hand.  But my shiny rocks might not be the same as the fella’s downstream, and without some reliable way of differentiating them and explicitly communicating what each of us has, we really haven’t communicated very much.  Facts matter.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Trusting that you can see where my primitive example is going, I won’t belabor it, but will get to the point.

Our sustainability  as individuals and as a  society is based on an informational paradigm that goes something like this:

Sustained existence depends on productive action against forces of decline and deterioration.

Productive action depends upon proven theories or ‘truths‘ of how the universe works (scientific law and principles, public policies, law, social customs, business models).

Truths depend upon a system of facts and logical relationships among those facts that inform actions which understand reality and reliably achieve intent.

Facts are symbolic representations of realities that we seek to understand  and communicate in order to relate to them in intended ways.

Reality is immutable, irrefutable,  and will ultimately trump (small t) all else.

But over time, a problem has developed with this paradigm. As our world has become more complex and our spheres of dependency have expanded, we have depended on ever-growing networks of intermediaries to give us the facts that we depend on for truth and guidance for actions that we hope to take for our sustainability, and hopefully our prosperity beyond the barest requirements of our existence.  And to repeat, those facts are symbolic representations of reality, not to be confused with reality itself.

So what could possibly go wrong with this?  First, we may not gather all the facts we need.  Second, the facts we gather may be imperfect representations of the reality they purport to represent. Third, the intermediaries we rely on for facts may be incompetent or deceitful in providing information we can relay on. Finally,  we may choose to exercise concerted ignorance to the facts that do not comport with our preferred beliefs or ‘truths’.

When facts are compromised or disregarded, our sustainability is at risk. When the truths on which we take action no longer comport with reality, there will be a collision between our expectations and reality, often referred to with the euphemism ‘unintended consequences’.

    *    *    *

We should distinguish between truths and opinions.

Opinions can exist free of facts, dangerous as that is.  Truths cannot.

Truth:   “the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality”

Opinion: “a: belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge b :  a generally held view”

For example, I may have an opinion that my pension fund will be able to meet projected obligations based on an assumed rate of return of 8% over time, but if historical facts inform that I am only earning 3%, and known information does not provide credible basis for a prudent person to reasonably expect that 8% or better will be achievable in the foreseeable future, then my opinion on the assumed rate will not matter against the truth of realized (real) rates of return.

Short form:

Facts do not always fully or accurately represent reality.

And Truths and Opinions are not always supported by complete and accurate facts.

But truths and opinion without complete and accurate facts will inevitably collide with Reality.

And Reality will always win.

I hope we have enjoyed this respite from facts in 2016.  2017 awaits, as does Reality.

Onward.

20161231

In our next exciting episode: Escalating Ignorance in the Information Age