I am by no means perfect. If you’re first thought of me is that I think that I am, you’ve mistaken my intent or, at the very least, my style. I think I’m probably wrong most of the time. I think you probably are, too. Why do I think this is so? Imperfect information.
As humans we each have an incredible array of information coming at us from every direction all the time. Especially in today’s world. The information age is a terrifying and wonderful time to be alive. But in this powerful era of mass media and instant connectivity information has, so far, become more commodity than instruction. Every piece of data we receive today seems to be selling us something.
Politicians try to sell us a world view in exchange for support and power. Television tries to sell us bits of entertainment to keep us transfixed. Social media stars vie for our attention and clicks. And all of this is interlaced with advertisement designed to save our lives with drugs that kill us or goods that thrill us. Selective facts pour in to persuade or dissuade us, to beguile and distract us.
On the other side of information is the endless data at our fingertips, for personal exploration. By recent accounts, we have entered the zettabyte era of the internet. What’s a zettabyte? Back in simple computing we learned that a bit is a binary digit and a byte is 8-bits, or one character on a page. A gigabyte, a familiar term to most of us, is a billion such bytes. An exabyte is a billion of those gigabytes. In other words, a billion billion bytes. A zettabyte is a thousand of those exabytes and how much information, roughly, that is on the internet today. One thousand billion billion bytes. In a short sentence it doesn’t really seem like that much, but it is the equivalent of 36,000 continuous years of high definition video. And, of course, the internet is growing exponentially; you’ll never finish it all, no matter how much you surf today.
But even with all that data at our fingertips the stuff we do know is preposterously imperfect. Even if we could sit around every day and just dig we’d never know everything there is to know about anything.
Imperfect sources of data fill our imperfect brains and form our imperfect world views.
It’s mind-boggling that any of us ever think we’re right.
But we do. I do. I have very strong convictions about a good many things, and I’m one of those folks that loves to share ideas with others, even very strong ones. I love to argue debate talk about stuff. I even really feel I’m right about a good many of the things that I say. But I also know I could be wrong.
In religious terms, this means that there very well could be a God, or a bunch of them, though I don’t believe it. In fact, the universe would be a much safer place with one, great loving creator, and a richly more interesting place with a bunch of competing ones. That’s a universe I’d like to live in. I don’t think that I do, but I’d love to nonetheless.
In political terms, this means that the trickle-down theory of economics may very well work one of these times, though it never has before. In fact, it likely never will because of the inherent self-interest of human nature and the inevitable corruption of power and capital when concentrated in the hands of the few. But I could be wrong. I have imperfect information.
And so do you.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have opinions. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold them dearly to our hearts, and have strong convictions about them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate them fiercely. But it does mean that we should always bear in mind that we don’t have all the answers, we can’t have all the answers, and anyone who says that they do have all the answers is sadly misinformed, dangerously demagogic, or is trying to sell you something.
One of my favorite ways to reconcile a debate when it gets too heated is to remind my opponent that even though there’s a chance that one of us is right, the greater probability is that none of us are.
There’s a thousand times a billion billion bytes of information out there right now and none of us have read it all. And even those thousand times a billion billion bytes of information out there can’t cover everything we could know. So without perfect information we are stuck sitting here, in our little towns on a little planet in a little solar system in a vast universe guessing every single day.
I’m willing to bet we’re mostly guessing wrong.
But what do I know?