Imperfect Information

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.

And it works.

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?

*first posted in May 2017, on the old TBT.

39 thoughts on “Imperfect Information

  1. That said, all the data I receive from the internet is true, accurate, “real”., ie, not “fake” and cannot be spun any other way. Uh huh. Sure. So who did you want me to vote for? What do you want me to buy?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Of course, I meant “present company excluded.” If you’re smart enough to read TBT then your information is probably perfect. 😉

      As for your vote, vote your conscience! In other words, “anyone but Trump.” 😁

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The idea has merit! Although our mythologies and politics are all inventions of humans, there are still objective rights and wrongs. My dog won’t rise off and kill his brother to take his girlfriend, for example, or even his kibble. He won’t treat a new visiting person in the house like dirt because of their gender identification or skin color. He would never vote for Trump. There are objective goods worthwhile we can learn: don’t kill another, be fair and kind, don’t elect incompetent demagogues. Thank you, Ludo.

      However, be careful how far you take the emulation of Jesse. It is not okay to eat cat poop. One should not lick their genitals or the genitals of others in public, unless asked and understood universally by all present to be appropriate. Don’t piss on the carpet, no matter what.

      As long as we take these things into consideration, philosophical dog emulation is perfectly sane. More sane then, say, worshiping a self-serving orange narcissist or believing the 4 billion-year old earth was created 6000 years ago in 7 days.

      As all things, context. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I run an appliance store (large kitchen and laundry appliances) and we work with a lot of contractors and property management, along with retail customers. We don’t go in for the big “one day only” stuff that brings the crazies. Honestly, we’re closed for a lot of the holidays that are big shopping days for other retailers (Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day). We’re more of a “family” store that keeps it on the mellow side.

      That said, November tends to be a crazy month, anyway, because we get some folks all month long that waited til the last minute, ordered a new stove, and didn’t pay attention when we told ’em “I can’t guarantee it’ll be here before Thanksgiving.” They stress out, anyway. A lot.

      But the actual “Black Friday experience.” Pass. 😉

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Gertrude Stein said “Everybody gets so much information every day they lose their common sense!” And that was well before the internet was even conceived.
    Too much information, in fact, can even lead to paralysis. At least that’s my opinion, as is my belief that we are all real and live in a world we have to share in spite of—and often enriched by—differences of opinion.
    I could be wrong but I have to trust in it, even if I can’t be as certain as Samuel Johnson was when he said “Thus I refute Bishop Berkeley.”
    In fact I’m not even sure that story is true, but stories help us understand the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gertrude was a smart cookie. I always tell the story of when Dr Watson had to explain to Sherlock Holmes that the earth went around the sun, not the other way around, and how flabbergasted Watson was to find out the smartest guy ever didn’t already know that. Holmes responded, basically, that he had enough useful information on his mind all the time and couldn’t be bothered with something as trivial as which sphere circles which, a bit of information he would never have any real reason to use. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. There’s a book, “The Information” by James Gleick, who talks about Claude Shannon, the father of the Information Theory, and one of the aspects of chaotic systems, which I found dumbfounding, was that the more order your apply to a system, the LESS information it contains. The more chaos you introduce the greater the information. It’s a heavy read, and frankly, should have been condensed. But along the lines of Debt: The First 5000 Years, a necessary read for us in the Information Age.

    Regarding wrong and right, I’d say it’s contextual. Mr. Mudge’s proposition of invented morals exists, we have posited, at the outer most contextual ring of existential awareness. Out there there are no absolute ethics. Evil is just as valid as Good, empty as full, up as down, wrong as right. Truth is contextual.

    Only within the confines of an established context, say, kindergarten, can systems of binary behavior evidence themselves. Expanding from there, I might suggest, we come to 21st Century society and it is here that most debates of morality are contested. And I fully agree, given the every growing chaotic nature of data and the agenda-laced biases that come of information distilled from said data, none of us can possibly be “right”, all of us are mostly “wrong”, and as you have noted—it probably doesn’t matter as the truth, the dog-truth of a thing is unknowable at this stage in humanity’s evolution.

    In the context of Epicurean pursuits, I believe we can all agree, beer is good. And that may be all that needs to matter in the world.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Anony, I’m going to go refill my coffee and read this one again. Then I’m gonna save your reading recommendations to my wish list. Then I’m going to read this again, then I’m going to respond.

      In that order.

      Unless the dogs wake up.

      Then there will just be chaos. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Having read your thoughtful and amazing response 4 times, I can most certainly tell you that beer is not only good, but necessary and you just reminded me why. Life is strange. We live in our contextual places, and some of us have the insight to see the outermost ring of existence, as you said. We are aware how little we matter, even if we are the most important things in the world to us.

      I do believe in right and wrong (and Paul does, too). Not as a measure of universal order – no consciousness invented either of those concepts or the cosmos itself – but as a matter of social connectivity. We need to be kind to others. We need to hold killers and rapists and demagogues accountable. We need it to survive, to thrive, and to build upon the chaos we have only just begun to tap.

      I’ll take chaos and information over order and ignorance any day. And twice on Sunday.

      And speaking of Sunday, I have to go get ready for “church.” Beer, and goodness, awaits. 🍻

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It may be that our ability to fathom the outer-most boundary of philosophical existence provides us an agnostic foundation upon which we may overlay society’s morality. Knowing (believing we know) the state of being where nothing matters allows us to selectively apply ethical systems: 1) a Jack London’esque kill or be killed, eat or be eaten world? 2) a theologically controlled, hierarchical world? 3) a Gaia-based, all are connected world? 4) a DNA driven diversity-is-best world? Or, perhaps the hardest to imagine, a world where we actively strive to tip the balance of suffering vs joy—toward the latter. I profess reticence to express such a contrite phrase, but in the battle between hate and love, what fool would choose the former?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. What fool indeed? But, in fact, many do. For personal gain? For folly? Are they just broken? Which of those apply to the king of hate today, the very president of the United States? It is a conundrum to ponder, but even so … I choose the latter, and I think I’m better off because.

        Like

    1. Thanks for reading, Miriam! If that is the case, as you say, then why? If most people think that most people are wrong, is it possible that we, ourselves, are as wrong as people think? And so, then, aren’t they, too? If so, what the hell are we all fighting about, anyway? 😁

      I think peace is possible, if we all stop trying to be so damn right. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so happy to see this post again Tom!! I love it! And the comments are profound as well! You’ll have to excuse me for my lack of brain power at the moment, everything is being siphoned into the ol’ book which will probably be late! (though better than never!)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Now I’ve hit “send” before I was even done! I think it takes a lot of wisdom and power to admit to being “wrong”, to admit to any insufficiency. I noticed the other day a beautiful description of the difference between a “perfectionist” mindset and a “progress” mindset. Perfectionist aims to reach an ideal which will lead to unhappiness because it is unreachable, while progress understands that failure is inevitable and is an opportunity for growth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This reminds me of one of my favorite books, “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. She goes over in wonderful detail the difference between the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset,” as you have described. If you always think you’re right, or you’ve already learned what you need to know, you’re done. A LOT of leaders are like that, including the current US president. But those of us with a growth mindset realize there is much, much more to learn, everyday, and we make better leaders. And humans. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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