It is possible to drown in a rainstorm. Understanding where the water is going is key to surviving the deluge. If the deluge gets strong enough, understanding the nature of the water itself becomes essential for understanding where it is going. Water is information. Information is water. We are living through an unprecedented deluge of information and yet find ourselves dying of thirst even as we drown in the flood. Human ingenuity is the source of this flood of information. However, it is only through human ingenuity that we can create tools to navigate, manage, and thrive in systems of flood, whether we are talking about the fluid or data variety. Up to now I have seen precious little discussion of our ability to understand and process the floods we are facing. And yet this is key to the survival of civilization.
As part of Bryan Alexander’s book club, we are reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future, a book about human response to climate change. The book starts, somewhat implausibly, with information death as an Indian city dies in a massive heatwave that gradually reduces the informational options of its inhabitants until they die in the toxic, boiling sludge of the sole remaining source of moderation, the local lake. Power goes, cooling fails, water sources ultimately dry out. The humans improvise until there is nothing left to improvise with and then they die. At the other end of the spectrum is the headquarters of The Ministry, Zürich, Switzerland, which is characterized by almost constant rain, metaphorical information rain as well as the real stuff. The problem there is discerning what is happening out of the deluge of political, economic, and scientific rain that seems to constantly pummel the humans who are trying to navigate the planet through a burgeoning series of crises that humanity has created.
2020 has seen an unprecedented storm of consequential information and, like the Ministry, we struggle to make sense of it, much less act on that sensemaking. From trying to understand the source, flow, and consequences of Covid-19 to analyzing the outcome of an election in the US to understanding our educational systems in a time of crisis, the rain has been constant but ever-changing in its intensity and nature as it flows throughout human society. All of these crises have one thing in common: Whether we are talking about pandemic, climate change, democracy, or education, our problems boil down to our capacity (or incapacity) to understand and manage the rain of information. From the earliest days of civilization in Egypt and Mesopotamia, successful human societies have harnessed technology to channel the flow of water into richness. To do this, they also harnessed the power of information. We have the same responsibility now.
This week seemed to mark an odd confluence of information for me. It became clear that the fundamental problem uniting all of these crises is a lack of understanding of the informational floods with which we are confronted. Starting with the fastest-moving of them: the pandemic, we have struggled to even understand where it was raining. I have been thinking, on a personal level, that it would be really cool to have an AR set that could actually see the virus particles in the air and on the surfaces around us. We do not have the technology to achieve that level of seeing yet but we do have powerful data tools that can show us that information on a more macro level. However, even those tools have often proven inadequate in the face of poor data inputs. Even with sophisticated mapping tools, testing and tracing inputs have struggled to keep up with the speed of the contagion. Understanding the intensity of the rain is a key first step to any response. Unfortunately, in this instance, we have seen far too many societies deny the oncoming storm, refuse to see it, and even go so far as to conclude that if we ignore it, it will go by as a mild sprinkle. Those societies have developed informational problems as the nature of the flooding has gone unreported until masses start to drown. The tools we have developed to measure the rain, while technological achievements, are filled with bad information about the nature of the flows we confront.
Climate change lies on the other end of the spectrum. We’ve had time, albeit less and less of it as the years of inaction stretch into decades. Here the rain threatens to assume a physical form as the planet struggles to adjust to the anthropocene. However, even as the data accumulates from a wide range of data collection, we still struggle to “see” what it all means. In this context, we lack the tools necessary to understand clear pathways. We can see the rain and even get a sense of its intensity. However, we have a poor map of the landscape; how the rain might flow once it hits us; and what needs protecting the most. Like the pandemic, those on high ground seek to deny the oncoming storm because they are unwilling to make the sacrifices that will protect those most in danger. This is a central theme to Robinson’s book.
In the United States, we are rife with conspiracy theories whose informational waves lap over the gamut of issues from the pandemic to climate change to the health of our democracy. In this case and at this level the data is painfully obvious to anyone willing to confront it. On an individual level, we know what we need to do to protect ourselves from the pandemic: wear masks, socially distance, avoid creating crowded indoor spaces, and aggressively vaccinate when a vaccine becomes available. Even in the face of this immediate threat we are faced with a deluge of informational noise and nonsense, and so the virus spreads.
This information pollution extends to the climate change threat, as we are constantly presented with false choices between prosperity and responsible stewardship of the planet upon which we depend for our very existences. Again, humans are presented with a vast deluge of information but few tools to contextualize it and translate it into individual or community action. Into this environment we also see those living on the high ground trying to protect their privilege by muddying the waters with informational sludge, such the oil companies’ decades-long disinformation campaign on the connection between the burning of fossil fuels and the threats to our existence.
These same strategies are being employed to throw sludge into the very machinery of our democracy as cries of “voter fraud” have echoed through our polity in the wake of the recent US presidential election. Compared to tracking millions of invisible viral containers (COVID-19 leaves a notoriously inaccurate paper trail) or the complex interactions of billions of interconnected environmental systems, tracking 160 million votes is child’s play. While inexplicably not perfect, our data systems are well up to the challenges of accurately counting votes in 2020, more so than in any election since the founding of the US Republic. The Cybersecurity and Instructure Security Agency issued an unequivocal statement, “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.” Yet, in this case millions question the reality of the data in front of them.
Finally, our world of education, I asked a question of Kelvin Bentley on Bryan’s Future Trends Forum. Dr. Bentley proposed that we do a better job of data acquisition and analysis from our institutions of higher education in the United States. I asked him how we could do that in the absence of standard measurements (like the spread of a virus), context (like the collapse of global ecologies), or a clear paper trail (like US elections). Furthermore, even assuming that we have these kinds of informational inputs (which is entirely possible), how would we be able to actually see the landscape that this informational deluge would unleash without proper tools to analyze the data (which we could build)? We all agreed that the system we were trying to understand was lacking in all aspects for managing information flows. Without these fundamentals of information, we lack the ability to manage the educational storm confronting our society. Unfortunately, fixing this system is a basic leverage point for developing the capacity to understand the other storms confronting us. Universities form the linchpin for developing responses to all of our challenges, from the pandemic response to climate change to democratic reform. It is trust in our institutions of education to provide informational tools that are an essential prerequisite for action that allows systemic responses to be crafted. And yet, even on this fundamental level, we are content to drown or die of thirst in a deformed informational ecosystem.
For all of these scenarios are the same. We are facing a deluge of information in face of local, societal, and global challenges. We are only beginning to grasp at the requirements that will save us from the flood of the Nile waters. The ancient Egyptians developed calendars as a critical tool in their civilizational toolsets. Without calendars they would not have known when the river would rise, when to plant their crops, and how to channel the deluge. We can’t even agree on what day it is. Humanity is in desperate need of Digital Age calendars and other informational tools to sort the deluge of data. Informational tools are essential to crafting responses understandable to all so that we can take collective action to combat the challenges confronting our, now-global, civilization. Universities should lead through example by transforming educational practice into one characterized by transparency and the application of powerful informational tools as a means to demonstrate how we can tackle the other storms of society.
This much is clear: Information complexity is the real flood of the 21st Century. It’s time to make tools that allow us to see it, learn from it, and thrive. For, like water, complexity holds within it vast potential. However, also like water, it can overwhelm and drown us. Digital Age calendars that can absorb this data and translate it into something instantly understandable are the keys to making sure we aren’t overwhelmed by flood and pollution.