Information and the loss of meaning

2005

Up to a century and a half ago, the delivery of a letter from say Edinburgh to London involved a series of quite dangerous – and one assumes costly – horseback rides to place a communication that might have today done quite nicely as a brief email, even an SMS message, in the hands of the recipient.

No fresh insight here at first glance, but linger for a moment more. How much more significant, momentous and risky (and therefore flattering) this process is for both author and recipient. The sheer physical work required, the time spent, the hours of waiting, talk up the nature of the relationship, the importance of the matter in hand, the weightiness of each scribbled word.

There is meaning here that does not derive from the communication itself, but from the means, the process of communication. Something powerful is said and taken on board before the message is even opened.

This is a clear form of long distance tribal grooming, a statement about esteem and hierarchy, a social act as much as an informational one. The importance, the seriousness of our communications are expressed and underlined by the means of transmission, and the amount of work, risk and cost involved.

Thus the ever-increasing ease of access we experience today creates an interesting gap. While the benefits of such enablement are undoubted, something is lost.

More simply put, when I can say it to you anyhow, anytime and anywhere, the ease of expression, this lack of friction and endeavour, can compromise the social component of my communication to you. How important is it?

And more crucially, how important is our relationship? If all human communication is, as has been convincingly proposed, evolved from the grooming behaviour we still observe in monkeys, where the very effort and sacrifice, the spent energy required to perform this central service to the individual and the tribe, are part and parcel of the message itself, what is said?

What, in fact is there left to say, when the process becomes effortless. Does it then become meaningless?

What happens to our human experience when we habitually have access to mobile phones, Internet, endless data, and of course, each other?

If a little connection was a dangerous thing, a lot is highly corrosive

We rapidly discover that, if a little connection was a dangerous thing, a lot is highly corrosive. Far from improving our lot, the depth and quality of relationships of all kinds are profoundly compromised by the new ease of access.

How information attacks meaning
Belief used to be easy to come by: information was tougher. Knowledge in the Dark Ages was built upon belief, and used in that context exclusively. (To do otherwise was considered heresy.) The monasteries were the repositories of all knowledge, the dispensaries for all information.

The mechanism of print was what began to break the hold that belief had over knowledge. Information could, in a very simple mechanical way at first, be duplicated.

Why was print so powerful and why does Caxton's hand-cranked press stack up so perfectly against the most advanced digital cool tool? Because that very encoding facilitates the creation and distribution of knowledge, unhooks it from its latency.

And here's something else.

When that latency is exploited commercially, when knowledge is, via information technologies, everywhere as it is now, it becomes, having once been a bona fide mystery, a jewel of Promethean importance, whose very rarity made it a treasure … merely boring. In commercial terms, it becomes a commodity.

Yet we are still superstitiously resistant to this realisation. Consider this. The parents of my generation, who mostly grew up during or just after the Great Depression of the 1930's, and all of whom were affected by the Second World War, are indelibly marked by their experiences. Ideas that may be important to them - central credo's, in fact - are often difficult for their offspring to understand today.

I'm thinking here in particular of the frugality ingrained first by economic crisis, and later by severe food shortages and rationing. We must respect their attitudes, and indeed the underlying principle of frugality is sound here, but we cannot of course live by them, if they are no longer relevant. (Sadly, they remain powerfully relevant in too many parts of the world.)

Similarly, the instinctive, but I argue redundant, notion that information, in and of itself, is valuable and worthy, is perhaps the ghost of the knowledge famine of the Middle Ages. The idea of its scarcity, inherited and held over (the firm grip sustained by the memory of "just how bad it was"), promotes a tangible but unspoken sense of value, a sort of mirage of opportunity.

Do I mean that learning is unimportant? Not at all. I mean that the hoarding, the fervid exploitation as information, of this new commodity is a complete red herring.

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About The Author

Michael Bayler
Michael Bayler

Michael Bayler is a strategist and futurist based in London. He specialises in the impact on brands, organisations and individuals of developments and trends in culture, media and technology.