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Incomprehension in the face of information overload

Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #10)

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Human limitations: As noted above, the explosion of available information necessarily constrains the capacity to engage effectively with it in any conventional sense. This contrasts with the conclusions of a study of the Club of Rome (James W Botkin, et. al, No Limits to Learning; bridging the human gap, 1979). This has been separately criticized (Societal Learning and the Erosion of Collective Memory, 1980), notably in the light of a recognition of the nature of such "limits" (Limits to Human Potential, 1976). Also of relevance is the argument of Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Ingenuity Gap, 2000) and that relating to the nature of a hypothesized memetic "event horizon" (Emerging Memetic Singularity in the Global Knowledge Society, 2009).

Issues meriting consideration include:

  • memory capacity and retention capacity
  • capacity to span more than a limited number of domains to a fruitful degree
  • attention capacity in the face of an ever-increasing barrage of information implying urgency
  • time available to absorb new knowledge to any useful degree
  • absorption fatigue -- notably in relation to hyperlinks leading ever onward and elsewhere
  • limitations to the availability of information, whether in physical or electronic form
  • constraints on access to information, whether due to its cost, confidentiality or complexity
  • deterioration of information "vehicles", whether hardcopy, electronic, backwards compatibility, or "link rot"
  • elusive nature of any adequate or meaningful synthesis
  • languages and preferences for meaningful communication

The issue of "memory" and "retention" is especially relevant at a time when the US "rogue" soldier responsible for the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians is likely to be found relatively blameless following his claim that he "cannot remember anything" (Robert Bales, Suspect In Afghanistan Shooting Rampage, Recalls Little, Huffington Post, 20 March 2012). Of relevance, with respect to collective memory, are the alleged efforts made to delete references to the perpetrator (Robert Bales Deleted From Internet? Huffington Post, 22 March 2012), On a larger scale this might be said of "incidents of history" such as Fallujah and My Lai (Robert Bales, Afghanistan Shootings Suspect, Not Likely To Face Death Penalty, Huffington Post, 22 March 2012):

Of the long list of alleged U.S. atrocities -- from prison massacres in World War II to the slaughter of civilians at My Lai in Vietnam -- relatively few high-profile war crimes believed to involve Americans in the past century have resulted in convictions, let alone the death penalty.... And when a punishment is imposed, it can range anywhere from life in prison all the way down to house arrest.

The erosion of collective memory on a planetary scale is tragically highlighted by the fictional account of Doris Lessing regarding a pattern of encounters of a "galactic development agent" with the head of a "developing planet" (as discussed in Fragmentation and erosion of collective memory, 1980):

    To say that he understood what went on was true. To say that he did not understand -- was true. I would sit and explain, over and over again. He listened, his eyes fixed on my face, his lips moving as he repeated to himself what I was saying. He would nod: yes, he had grasped it. But a few minutes later, when I might be saying something of the same kind, he was uncomfortable, threatened. Why was I saying that? and that? his troubled eyes asked of my face: What did I mean? His questions at such moments were as if I had never taught him anything at all. He was like one drugged or in shock. Yet it seemed that he did absorb information for sometimes he would talk as if from a basis of shared knowledge: it was as if a part of him knew and remembered all I told him, but other parts had not heard a word. I have never before or since had so strongly that experience of being with a person and knowing that all the time there was certainly a part of that person in contact with you, something real and alive and listening -- and yet most of the time what one said did not reach that silent and invisible being, and what he said was not often said by the real part of him. It was as if someone stood there bound and gagged while an inferior impersonator spoke for him. (Re: Colonised Planet 5 - Shikasta, 1979, pp. 56-57).
The dilemma of collective memory in a global knowledge society is highlighted by the recognition of the emergence of a "blip culture" by Alvin Toffler (The Third Wave, 1980), now remarkably evident in the uptake of Twitter -- which may yet enable the emergence of new forms of coherence to counterbalance the tendency to cognitive cocooning and gated communities (Re-Emergence of the Language of the Birds through Twitter?, 2010; Dynamically Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge society, 2004). Of concern is however the preference for "positive thinking", as noted by Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-sided: how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America, 2009). Such cognitive "sweeties" may signal the emergence of an information analogue to the global obesity/diabetes epidemic (Memetic and Information Diseases in a Knowledge Society, 2008; Cognitive Implications of Lifestyle Diseases, 2010).

Overwhelming experience of libraries: While the experience of incomprehension is evident in the exposure to search engine query results, its nature is dramatized by exposure to the racks of books in an extensive bookshop or library. Whilst such arrays can be acclaimed as "knowledge", the incapacity to engage effectively with more than a very small fraction forces recognition of the extent to which this is a reflection of the "ignorance" of the viewer -- from whom awe is then elicited. Only by employing the most blinkered approach can the experience of "incomprehension" be ignored.

Intelligence analysis: Probably the most potentially valuable source of insight into "incomprehension" with respect to information is that associated with the extensive work on intelligence analysis and intelligence analysis management, well-indicated by Wikipedia, with related entries on failure in the intelligence cycle, analysis of competing hypotheses and cognitive bias.

The key focus in that arena is however on "interpretation" rather than "incomprehension". This suggests that, as with the discussion above regarding "misunderstanding", it is "misinterpretation" which is the concern. As with "misunderstanding", analysis can readily give rise to "interpretation" -- avoiding acknowledgement of "incomprehension". Of particular relevance, given the unprecedented resources currently deployed by security agencies, is the manner whereby a large number of analysts (spread across many agencies), integrate their insights without being entrapped by inappropriate biases and groupthink. A further concern is that whilst ever larger volumes of data are collected and subject to computer analysis, the vulnerabilities of this mode are increasingly difficult to check by human interpreters for which there may be inadequate resources and training.

These concerns have been brought into very sharp focus by the intelligence failure relating to 9/11 and Iraq from which learnings are variously sought (Josh Kerbel, Thinking Straight: cognitive bias in the US Debate about China -- Rethinking Thinking, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, Studies in Intelligence, 48, 3, 2004 : Kevin Fenton, Disconnecting the Dots, 2011). A recent summary is offered by Kjetil Anders Hatlebrekke and M. L.R. Smith (Towards a New Theory of Intelligence Failure? The Impact of Cognitive Closure and Discourse Failure, Intelligence and National Security, 2010) who focus on the human factor in intelligence production, and its relationship to discourse failure seen as increasing because of a flaw in the epistemic process among intelligence operators and consumers. For them:

Intelligence literature after 9/11 has focused on the causes and nature of intelligence failure, though few inquests have conceived intelligence as a deeply cognitive, and therefore mental and moral landscape that needs to be explored in all its complexity. Intelligence operators, like art spectators, perceive reality filtered through all sorts of implicit and explicit ideological prisms, and these ideologies, whether they are political assumptions or social orthodoxies, manifest themselves as cognitive closure, and shape the discourse in intelligence organizations, as well as between these organizations and society at large.

An especially telling account is offered by  W. Patrick Lang ("Bureaucrats Versus Artists") regarding the marginalization of "intelligence" in favour of "management" in intelligence agencies -- with all that implies in terms of avoidance of any challenge to groupthink or personal career advancement. The elusive improbability of wise interpretation highlights the dangers of disaster consequent on intelligence failure -- as with that of 9/11.

A related issue with regard to collective memory is the volume of information rendered inaccessible by being "classified", "redacted" or shredded.

Knowing naught: With respect to the "comprehension" of knowledge -- and any emergent "wisdom" -- the reflection of Omar Khayyám, the Persian polymath and famed author of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, merits consideration as an indication of the nature of "incomprehension":

Of knowledge naught remained I did not know,
Of secrets, scarcely any, high or low;
All day and night for three score and twelve years,
I pondered, just to learn that naught I know.

This from a culture about to be subject to a form of annihilation by another proud of its capacity to know everything through "total information awareness" -- but currently challenged by lack of expertise to interpret it and faced with the consequences of the unforeseen murder of 16 defenceless Afghan women and children by its own military agent who "cracked".

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