Sunday, 7 December 2014

The internet is the world's biggest echo chamber

The futurists were correct about the internet. Humans now have more information than they can possibly digest. The mistake is to assume that any of this reflects progress. It only highlights the illusion of human advancement.

The biggest impact of a technology arises when it is generalised, not when it’s invented. The internet was invented as a tool to catalogue and extract data. It was supposed to be freeing. Instead the oceans of information paralyse us.

The theoretical scientific limits on information storage technology suggest it has barely even begun. And although technology marches on, the human brain struggles to make use of the riches of data. This imbalance reveals what happens when the brain reaches its limits.

For instance, the CIA conducted an experiment in the 1990s in which they requested private individuals to analyse a specific set of current intelligence requirements. The only trick was that the participants were not given access to classified documents. All their analysis had to emerge from the open source only. At that time, the internet was embryonic.

There is a tendency in the intelligence community to attribute an almost ethereal quality to a report stamped “classified” above the tearline. As if the contents and analysis were made somehow more reliable by those 10 letters. This strange bias leads to all manner of false conclusions and poor decision making. Humans default agreement to hierarchy – real or imagined – in the presence of a knowledge vacuum.

However, the most intriguing outcome of the experiment was that when the CIA received the analyses, it found some information so accurate and detailed that the agency was shocked. So shocked in fact, that it quickly moved to classify the documents immediately. One hopes the agency learned its lesson.

What was the lesson? The quantity of information was already overwhelming in the 1990s. Useful information often sits patiently on a library shelf or as published papers in some backwater university. The CIA perhaps suspected the information existed somewhere in the world, but it was biased and overwhelmed by the possible routes to find the information. That was two decades ago, imagine what its officials think now.

What’s troubling about the sheer volume of human information on the internet is that curing cancer or solving an uncrackable scientific or business problem might be as simple as finding the right PDFs of existing studies that no one remembers exists. Or getting a library card and taking a walk. They say humans die twice: once when their heart stops beating, and again when their name is spoken for the last time. Maybe it’s the same with information.

It would be a mistake to assume, however, that the quantity of information is the problem. That would be missing the point entirely. As countless failed relationships and melancholy pop songs prove, the only constant connecting all your failures is you. The same goes for technology.

Information and youth

But we can put this framework into a boardroom setting to illustrate the downsides of information overload and what it does to humans. Why, with all this unprecedented connection and knowledge, do companies consistently fail to leverage that information and spot the obvious steps?

It would be easy to say that humans are painfully stupid and be done with it. If belief in human rationality was a scientific theory it would long since have been abandoned. Many of the rudiments of our own success can be found in other animal species. Not a lot of what we do is unique and, on average, we’re not terribly smart. So the issue is not with the tools, it is with the worker.

Unfortunately, even when the problem is due to humans, the most common answer in business (and anywhere) is to hire different humans and expect new results.

A central thread at the Cybercrime and Trustworthy Computing 2014 conference last year was the necessity of encouraging the introduction of greater numbers of younger, tech-savvy people in the boardroom. According to the speakers, the older people already holding the positions of power are regularly unable to understand digital threats or virtual opportunities facing their businesses.

The connection between technology and youth transcends generations. So the prediction that greater numbers of younger managers will result in better business seems obvious. But for those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact beyond reproach!

That all sounds good in theory. After all, the youth will eventually move into power roles due simply to the natural aging of their elders. It has always been this way. The older board members were all young once and, in fact, that should tell you everything you need to know about the scale of the problem ahead.

The youth solution fails to comprehend the human animal's capacity to be corrupted by its own evolutionary history. It is a faith as strong and equally deluded as any religion. The battle is not human versus technology, it is human versus human.

Talk to any traffic crash investigator. They’ll explain that close to 100% of vehicle crashes are the result of driver error. Anyone who thinks society can resist the widespread introduction of driverless vehicles should also visit their local insurance representative. Driverless vehicles once existed: they were called horse-drawn carriages. Some carriage drivers slept while the horse found its own way home.

There are genetic worms inside human brains that confound technology. It can be frustrating to have a computer specialist sit in front of a group of managers slowly explaining the cyber threat. The interaction can trigger unconscious primal feelings of an unexpectedly inverted superiority role that neither can fully control.

The manager stares wide-eyed as the information passes overhead and the specialist leaves the room exasperated muttering something about imbeciles and budget restrictions. The temptation is to assume, as the conference speakers did, that the answer is to reverse the roles. If a new generation managed the company, then all gaps could be closed immediately. The desire – absent any rationality – is for technology and faith in human progress to be proven correct.

The internet and symbols of progress

When it comes to the power of the internet, replacing older managers with younger technologists is analogous to painting a house to fix the plumbing. It might look good for a while but flushing the toilet is still going to flood the conservatory. The problem is always human no matter what age they are.

For this reason, whatever the internet will become in the hands of humans will have nothing to do with the advancement of technology. The truth is, no one knows what kind of power the internet will eventually have in our world. And yet the religion of human progress wants us to direct technology’s evolution. After all, we invented the system. We should have control.

That is an easily swallowed delusion. And the delusion is becoming more dangerous every 24 months. Whenever a technology is sufficiently complex, humans by default tend to believe the next generation of people has the answer. They often don’t and why should they?

How can they fix a problem they will never fully understand? With each passing day, the internet grows in size and slips further from our control and comprehension. To stay sane we have to believe it is domesticable. Yet all the complications to come will arise because of the impossibility of advancing the human animal towards anything like a reasonable and logical creature.

The illusion of progress has peaked with the internet. Countless ideologies have already attempted to fix the human animal (at least thrice in the last 100 years) and not only does the social experiment inevitably end in spilled blood, the result is always the same: people don’t change. Progress doesn’t exist. Why would the internet be any different?

Science advances, that is undeniable. But not humans. The internet is the best tool we’ve ever devised for communications and yet it only satiates our animal desires, ripping off our societal mask so we can claw at fellow humans online. The internet fixes nothing and maximises everything.

If you find this hard to agree with, take a look at what’s happening in the Middle East. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are not as backward or different from other humans as we like to think. Observe how efficiently the men of the Islamic State are able to mesh their Bronze Age beliefs with 21st century technology to do their evil work. None of those men consider the tools of the internet and mobile phones anathema to their goals.

Some say the answer to defeating the cancers of rotten ideologies is to encourage the spread of the internet. It will raise the chances that “brainwashed” people will be exposed to challenging ideas. The internet, they say, is a place where religions come to die in the free marketplace of ideas.

But this is folly. The internet acts more like an echo chamber than a debating room. Humans are singly adept at finding kindred spirits online so they can avoid change. Science progresses, humans don’t. Why would the internet alter this reality?

The idea that the internet will be a force for human advance has not yet fallen into disrepute. The day will come. No matter how closely people follow traditions, they will always rely on a belief in progression of the future to attain mental composure. History may be replete with farce, tragedy and pain but the modernists have a faith that the future will always be better than the past. To disagree is to despair.

Liberal ideals are temporal and fragile at best. The “social justice” our ancestors fought so bravely for – equality, democracy, freedom – could all be lost tomorrow because of the oceans of information on the internet. Social progress exists only in our heads, jostling for control over inner demons. Why would the internet alter this reality?

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