The Northern Spy: Information is not information
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The Northern Spy: Information is not information

By Rick Sutcliffe

Information is not information unless it reflects reality. All real world activity generates observable data, and such data is the necessary starting point for information.

The term "fake data" is an oxymoron, for alleged data not rooted in real wold activities and events simply isn't. In his long and hopefully not too misspent life, the Spy has occasionally encountered people who believe they possess data that is no more than their imagination working overtime. Even by people who pride themselves in being right about everything, acts get jumbled, events get moved around in time and given content and/or meanings that are pure fabrication.

Such is also often (nearly always?) the case when someone attributes motives to explain another's words or actions. Only one Being apprehends the thoughts and motivations of people's hearts. Indeed, the Spy has had motives attributed to him that were exactly the opposite of his actual ones. A sufficiently large body of data gathered over a period of time and with some parallel evidence of motive might result in an accurate guess at intentions, but can only be considered true on the balance of probability (such as in a legal decision), and not in any absolute sense.

This is how we do science. Its conclusions are evidence-based and initially may be quite tentative. We gain confidence in the validity of a theory as supporting data accumulates and competing theories are definitively shown to fail at explaining the phenomena under scrutiny. Even those well-established theories we call "laws" are subject to later refinement or replacement when tested to points beyond our current abilities.

Newton's laws of motions, for instance, become false at speeds that are an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Though we might call information the fact that theories of gravity exist, the theories themselves are far from having much supporting data, so do not, strictly speaking, constitute at this time an informational framework for explaining the data.

Another class of cases in point are conspiracy theories. No specific once will be rehearsed in this space for fear of inadvertently spreading them, but rare indeed is the conspiracy theory that survives the gathering of data, however attractive it might be to the imaginations of those who are gulled into believing it.
Yet another class appears to be political platforms and speeches, for these need only to convince, so have no necessary correlation with reality, and seem at times to resemble the spiel of the circus barker touting the alligator lady side show or the con person selling Florida swampland or a magic cure-it-all-in-a-bottle.

The bottom line: to excite the application of the appellation "information" we demand a connection to the observable universe. Anyone with the appropriate capability to observe the necessary data should be able to verify a claim to to have correct data as a basis for accepting alleged information.

Unless it has meaning for, raw data is not congruent with information. We require more than a repeatable data collection technique. We also require an organizational framework to explicate the data. How and why does something work? What does it mean? How does the data mesh with anything else of a similar or related nature? And, just as important: How was the data collected and analyzed? Would other techniques work as well, give the same results? Were there presuppositions that determined how and which data would be collected? Ignored? Fitted? What was the basis for explaining it in a particular manner and not another? Is there a competing theory to explain the same data differently? Such considerations matter.

To put it another way, data alone does not yield information until it has been been meaningfully organized and explained to at least some degree. This requires intentionality, an intelligent application of data organization, manipulation, and analysis techniques that are already accepted as reliable and applicable to similar cases.

Opinion, for instance, is only data about the holder's state of mind. It only might have meaning external to that person. Public polls serve to aggregate opinion data, but any demagogue can easily sway opinions--a reality in the world outside people's heads is not a prerequisite to hold political allegiances.

Consider a statement that one computer operating system is "better" than another. These might have foundational personal data, or simply report a preference for the speaker's installed base of experience and comfort. In such matters, differences of view may have little or no resolvability--any more than an argument over colour preferences for the fabric on church chairs, or of a person's skin.

Partial resolution of the first of these might in some cases be appealed to on the basis of generally accepted aesthetic standards, say to match the colour of the carpet. However, the idea that skin colour ought to be a basis for classifying some people as inferior has no logical basis or sense whatever. Indeed, in his novel Paladin or Time Out Of Heart (currently in publication), the Spy parodies this with a group of people who have an equally irrational prejudice against red hair.

Again, the bottom line: to qualify as "information" we demand organization or analysis of our data using intentional techniques that are generally accepted as reliable tools for logically ascribing meaning to data. Some conclusions: (a) A view of (some portion of) the universe with no supporting data ought not to be accepted as information by any intelligent person. (b) If a body of data may be explained by two interpretive frameworks, holders of differing views ought to maintain a respectful benign tolerance of those who differ. Both may be wrong. (c) Ascribing informative quality to data interpreted through a framework or technique made too narrow by (possibly irrelevant) presuppositions greatly increases the probability of error and correspondingly reduces the information content.

Unless it can be communicated. The Greeks has a relevant term for what is here called "information". We transliterate their word as "logos", by which they meant something apprehended from the spiritual realm, organized according to accepted rules of reason, and capable of being reliably communicated to another using the accepted rules of rhetoric. Because of the required divine-revelation-plus-human-activity duality, adjectives built on this word can be translated to English as "spiritual" or as "reasonable/logical/acceptable" according to context. God (as opposed to 'the gods") was unknowable except by providing an understandable and communicable revelation--which incidentally nicely exegetes the first line of the Gospel of John in the context of its addressees.

Communication of information requires a sender, a receiver, and a medium, and can only be termed successful if the receiver understands the message as the sender intended. (Whether the receiver accepts the information as true could be another matter.)

All stages of this process require attention. The sender must frame the message as free as possible from distortions by language, cultural, and experiential context. Since all communication channels require encoding, the sender must also encode correctly and appropriately for the medium so as to make the message as accurate, clear, and unambiguous as possible. She must also choose a reliable channel for the message--one that does not systematically add, subtract, distort or colour the message by its very nature. The receiver must be able to reliably decode the message to his or her own context and retrieve a meaning close to the one intended by the sender.

How well do our communications skills and methods measure up to such an ideal? Personal conversations, meetings, seminars, courses, and presentations present opportunity to clarify by question-and-answer. This is not to suggest that speech necessarily conveys information, only that it can do so well.

Written communication, if containing sufficient detail, may be as good or better. Academics rely on referred published papers for their information, and the instances of faked data or analysis are few, and will eventually be detected when attempts are made to replicate the work. The Spy is even aware of proofs published in reputable mathematics journals that were later shown to be incorrect (he found one himself), but such instances are also rare.

On the other hand, email, posts, and tweets may provide the facts of the moment or communicate emotions or memes using generally understood symbols or code words, but their very brevity make them poor media for transmitting information reliably.

Newspapers once had a reputation for accurate reporting and cogent and careful analysis of the news--yes always from a particular political viewpoint for the editorials, but those were well marked, and bias understood up front. The independence of the news reporter has diminished however, and one must assume today that all print "news" is heavily filtered both for content and for interpretation of same. Indeed, much is obtained from a handful of very similar wire services rather than local reporters, and tends toward uniformity.

Radio and television apply much hotter and heavier filters, for most of their news is presented in bytes of a few seconds at a time, and can thus be precisely sculpted to the tastes of the editorial staff with no necessity for accurate and unbiased reporting.

How well these popular media actually do at transmitting information under the reality of heavy editing is difficult to assess accurately. The Spy being rather unfamous, his life has only occasionally intersected news stories sufficiently to allow comparison of published story with reality as he saw it. However, in all such cases, substantive facts were incorrect, and in most bias was obvious. He declines to generalize on limited data, but does take all news reports with a rather large block of salt. There is little motivation for them to present information, and much incentive to manipulate emotions. This is no new observation, for Marshall McLuhan observed as early as 1964 that "The medium is the message" and that messages themselves were a medium.

The reader should not take the above as a claim that news tends to be "fake". This is merely an observation that its nature, means, and use make it a poor way to reliably transmit information.

Unless it can be reliably stored. One time communication does not require storage to call it information, but in modern systems, storage is almost certainly implied. For instance, an email message is never private, for it must pass through many systems even to go next door. Each point of transit stores a copy, sometimes only for a few weeks, but others permanently. Many people have access to email, and when sent on a corporate or institutional account or machine it is not owned by the individual sender, and is also legally discoverable.

There are more substantive storage issues, for data and information aggregates are usually saved for later reference and possible further manipulation to refine the information content, possibly in concert with data stored elsewhere or gathered later. Web sites, resume sites, blogs, newsletters and columns such as this one (which only may be informative) are stored and accessed online. n may journals and magazines that were once in print format.

The Spy's fiction presents one society in which essentially all information is available in the electronic Metalibrary (except the military and government, which still use paper). He has other contexts in which it is all oral and memorized.

But if the storage is hackable, changeable, can be easily destroyed, the information contained therein is inherently unreliable. This difficulty did not arise in the print era, for one cannot locate all copies of, say, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences v319 and edit a paper therein entitled Vertex Transitive Graphs of Order 2p. But if the original is only available online at a limited number of locations, and these are insecure, what was once a reliable intergenerational means of transmitting information becomes suspect at best.

And indeed, there is no sense in which the current Internet can be called either secure or reliable in either its communication or storage functions. What to do? At least keep many backups, and not all in electronic form, for file formats become obsolete with time, and for the most part information stored electronically in, say, 1975, is not easily retrieved today except by experts in ancient technology.

Information is the stock and trade of this Fourth Civilization, so much so that this is often called the Information Age. The Hunter Gatherer (first civilization) is today all but invisible, Agriculture (basis for the second civilization) employs a tiny percentage of the developed world's population, and the number of factory workers (backbone of the third civilization) slipped into the minority decades ago, and with automation is headed to near zero.

This will affect third world countries and unskilled labour everywhere most sharply. For instance, garment work, long outsourced to low-wage regimes, will return to North America and Europe in automated factories having no workers on the floor, killing millions of jobs around the world. Likewise professional drivers, store clerks, maintenance workers, and many other positions, including some routine office work, will all be automated. And what of robotic surgeons?

The Spy's students who work productively after they graduate will be in health, education, research, personal services, the trades, or work at desks where they receive data and information from a variety of sources, add intelligent value to it, and put the result in storage or transmit it to some other person(s) directly. Jobs for those lacking either appropriate education or training will be almost nonexistent.

Is it not therefore time to begin orienting our systems for this purpose, to make them safe, secure, and reliable as information carriers and storage media? To re-orient our educational systems so that its graduates are well-versed problem solvers and communicators?

Food for thought, eh?

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns or Rick's SF? Check out the Arjay blog at

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:
The Northern Spy Home Page: http: //www. TheNorthernSpy. com
opundo : http: //opundo. com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http: //sheaves. org
WebNameHost : http: //www. WebNameHost. net
WebNameSource : http: //www. WebNameSource. net
nameman : http: //nameman. net

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Books:
Author Site: http: //www. arjay. ca
Publisher's Site: http: //www. writers-exchange. com/Richard-Sutcliffe. html
The Fourth Civilization--Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http: //www. arjay. bc. ca/EthTech/Text/index. html


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