What good is information without an elucidating explanation? Why hasn’t our immense information wealth translated into solutions to the Great Problems? If today is the age of the infovore, what age comes next?
For most of history, power has resided with those who controlled information flow — newspapers, governments, corporations, and pharma. It comes in two forms — real and illusory. Information Controllers knew things most other people didn’t, which is an example of real power. The illusory power was their authority: massive swaying power built on a global default and helpless state of ignorance. People simply didn’t have any other choice — and certainty is safer than none. No one particular member of the Information Controllers Band had lots of precious information to themselves — though some certainly had more than others — but as a unit they were the hurricane, society the feather.
The modern landscape is for all practical purposes the total opposite. Most information can today be accessed freely, quickly and safely. Information that doesn’t fall into these categories is either unimportant to us, or not yet important enough. The whole Wikileaks genesis story is one of some information’s journey from a status of relative unimportance to great global importance — overnight. And the basis of the importance doesn’t matter; as horrific as stories of US troops torturing Afghani civilians are, or as ethically monstrous as CIA hacking may be, most people cared only about the fact that information was intentionally being hidden from them. Though unacceptable in any era, in the information era it is downright outrageous.
But just because something’s been done in such a way for an extended amount of time doesn’t mean that’s the way it will or should continue to be done. It also doesn’t mean that the previous ways were correct. For all that’s good about information, it has one fundamental, often fatal flaw: its fragmentary nature. Contrary to popular discourse, human beings _are_ special: unlike all other creatures, we don’t wait million- or billion-year intervals for leaps in knowledge. Humans have the capacity to upgrade their software through experimentation, observation, and conversation. Some animals may be able to imitate, perhaps even infer, but none can manipulate their reality like humans. Manipulation of reality is possible only when the requisite knowledge has been instantiated — which is to say that we can only make, build, create or change our reality when we know how. The Human Story isn’t one about bipedal hoarders of information who somehow managed to conquer the world and soon the universe. It’s not because of information that we can build skyscrapers, land on the moon, or cure polio. It’s because of our ability to make sense of standalone information, with explanations.
Absent explanation, information is not just useless but potentially harmful. Being informed that my energy problems are explained by low HbA1c levels, a below-normal waist line, low blood pressure and high blood sugar is useless information to me without a unifying explanation that has the following qualities:
it explains why each aspect of the given information is relevant
it explains what this information means for me, and why I should care
it does not produce more smoke by deferring to other explanations which themselves defer, nor by using flowery terminology
it is not circular (eg, ‘your low energy, Jai, is caused by low HbA1c levels, caused by the low blood pressure, caused by low blood sugar, which is most probably caused by low HbA1c’).
Absent explanation I may come up with my one of my own. Putting aside omniscience or a stroke of good fortune, my explanation will be faulty. It might cause me to adopt different practices or consume medicines that actually make things worse. On the other hand, if I don’t generate my own explanation, then because I have no means sense-making mechanism, with time the information I gathered about my condition gets crowded out, forgotten, and conflated with other seemingly relevant information. This is the fragmentary nature of information: without a sense-making explanation, it disintegrates.
That we view any explanation is better than none is both a curse and a blessing. Without the trait, we’d still be in the Savanna. But it also leads to much confusion. The state of confusion is to be expected — and should be a regular occurrence if we’re doing things right — but it becomes an issue when it establishes itself as the default, normal or ‘right’ state. The foundational principles of most religions are such an example: it’s okay and in fact the correct way to be if one is confused about God, for he is The Creator and it is wrong to question Him; skepticism is not only discouraged but punished if not in this world then in the afterlife. The doctor doesn’t have to be correct is his diagnosis of early-onset diabetes as much as google does, but the simple fact of having an explanation may prevent me from burrowing down the google rabbit hole or losing my bearings over the uncertainty. Likewise with religion: the story of Adam and Eve, Heaven and Hell, an almighty God — it’s easier to live with these explanations than without them. But that doesn’t mean the explanations are true, optimal, or what we should settle on. Better explanations are beneficial not just in the psychological sense: better explanations are what enable us to build a better world.
Newspapers, political parties and the Church have for a long time been the gatekeepers because they were first and foremost the only sources of information, and so their explanations were trusted. It makes sense: of course ‘The Times are correct about Y — they have all the information about Y!’ If only. Information is open to an innumerable amount of interpretations, and the intuitive nature or beautiful words of a particular interpretation of some information are completely disconnected from its accuracy. Blind acceptance of an explanation or theory on the basis that it comes from an authoritative source is always bad. In previous centuries, this was the only rational strategy: publicly going against the grain was punishable by law, religion ran the show, information was scarce. Today we have the freedom to think aloud, more opportunity than ever before, and so much information abundance that Information Anxiety is now a thing.
Also today, information does not equal power — and information is the egg, authority the chicken. Like the egg, information comes first; years and years of controlling information flow naturally built stronger and stronger authority. In combination with Freedom of Speech, information control becoming practically impossible has led to an entire transformation of the word ‘powerful’. Deprived of proprietary information, authority starves; information is critical to its survival. But information is only half the story.
The controllers of information flow from years past no longer seem powerful to us because they no longer control information. Why turn to the Church or The New York Times for answers when sources X, Y and Z have the same information? And why even trust those sources, when we can do our own investigations? The mass starvation of authority of information controllers means there is no longer trustworthy source of truth. But why should that matter? Information is free — we can figure out the truth! It turns out it’s not quite that simple. Despite information abundance and inarguably more freedom than every before, we have a meaning crisis on our hands.
The meaning crisis makes little sense on the surface. Is it that we have too much information and too little RAM and processing power; that if we could just absorb and retain enough information, fast enough, we would have no problems? Is it that there is simply too much information? Is the problem lack of execution given known information? These are interesting questions that form the basis of commonplace discussions about everything from FOMO, echo chambers and the evils of the internet to skill acquisition, first principles thinking, and the basis of consciousness. But the conversation continuously overlooks the role of explanations, which make most of the hard questions go away. A good, unifying explanation of some given body of information removes the need to absorb more known information and instead turns attention to the discovery of new information. Once discovered, new information will itself require explanations. And so on. And there cannot be too much information: composed of information, explanations benefit from information abundance — the more information the better. Making sense of information is the task of the explainer, the function of the explanation, and the reason explanations are necessary. Sense-making is headed by the Unifiers.
Unifiers have always been significant. One could say that many Indians had the same information and resources as Gandhi, but none made sense of that information like he did. Likewise Martin Luther King, America’s Founding Fathers, Henry Ford, Socrates, Jesus, and other persons from past centuries to antiquity who today remain of interest for their abilities to rally a people and instigate change with words only. Science itself is a field about explanation: tons of information at every scale — from raw data straight out of the lab to wacky theories traceable to patent clerks — made sense of by a systematised approach to experimentation and a tradition of criticism. The scientists themselves are examples — Einstein being the obvious one. The point is not that he outperformed his colleagues but that he worked with the same information and made sense of it where they couldn’t. Einstein was a Unifier.
Unifiers have always been significant, yes, but not at the level they are today and will be in coming decades. A wise person once said that our biggest problem will be when we don’t have any problems. ‘The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.’, said the late Theodore Rubin. Human beings are problem solving beings: it’s in our bones; it’s what got us from the Savanna to modern civilisation; it’s what enables us to cure diseases, build space stations, understand the laws of the universe, to manipulate our world, to control our future. Problems are what actually give us meaning in life; it’s the continuous development towards solutions and eventual solving of problems that are our greatest, deepest, most real sources of purpose, fulfilment, joy, of happiness. And luckily, there will always be problems. The issue is in their identification. The more important and far-removed from parochial concerns a problem becomes, the harder it is to see. When the majority of our problems are of this nature, we have good reason to worry.
The scarcity and limited access to discovered information of the past was a plus for Unifiers insofar as it made their life easier: less information to make sense of is obviously easier than an infinite amount. The crucial negative is that it made their explanations less accurate — which is what actually matters. Unification isn’t supposed to be easy; there’s no reason the laws of the universe should appeal to our intuition because evolutionarily it hasn’t mattered. Our species’ evolution has thus far depended little on our understanding of problems that don’t present themselves in the form of black and white signals like hunger, thirst, the urge to find a partner with whom to reproduce, protection of members of one’s group, tiredness, and so on. With few exceptions, these are now solved problems — and where they are not solved we know how to solve them: the problem is not knowledge but execution.
Problems start off as knowledge problems and end as execution problems. Execution problems can still be hard, but they’re not the same category as knowledge problems. It is knowledge problems upon which the further evolution of humanity is fundamentally dependant. Curing cancer is one such problem: we don’t know how to cure it; we don’t have the knowledge. But when we do the problem becomes one of figuring out how to make the cure accessible to everyone, everywhere. When we have the cure for cancer, cancer-curing becomes an execution problem — a world of difference. Ageing is another such problem, as is the climate. Sustainable energy and redirection of comets are also knowledge problems, but increasingly less so; with sustainable energy for instance, we know that electric cars are better than combustion-powered cars, and solar panels allow us to tap into an energy source that contains more energy than we’ll need for a very, very long time 1.
Knowledge problems are solved through better and better explanations. The initial explanation of a knowledge problem is necessary only to get the ball rolling; once the problem is solved, the final explanation will be different and perhaps entirely incomparable to the initial explanation. What matters is the accuracy, as judged by the impact it has on understanding of the given problem. A problem understood is a problem solved. But understanding is not the outcome of mere consumption of information. It’s the outcome of explanations that account for and connect any given amount of pertinent information. The information must be made sense of. Hence the need for Unifiers, who create such explanations.
‘The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.’
In other words, unifications bring about a state of demand for further unification — and this cycle continues forever. We require explanations to make sense of information. Explanations solve problems and introduce new problems — that is, they either redefine a problem, reclassify its severity, or bring about truly unrecognised problems. By clarifying what some previously unexplained, confusing, irrelevant, or seemingly unimportant information means, explanations allows us to move forward in search of new information, and this information will itself require new explanations.
Solving the meaning crisis and dispelling the dangerous philosophy of postmodernism, curing Alzheimer’s, halting ageing, visiting other galaxies: solving these great problems and infinitely more alike depends fundamentally on how seriously we take the task of producing original explanations that:
- are independent
- shift the problem from one of knowledge to one of execution
- allow us to move on to new problems — a process that happens automatically once a problem has been truly solved
- don’t separate but connect — or unify
Historic leaps are real possibilities in the coming decades, some inevitable. In this piece I have used the word Unifiers to refer to those who create explanations that unify known information, allowing us to get on with the discovery of new information and consequently the solving of new problems. But Unifiers are more than explanation-creators. The Unifiers of the future will be those who contribute to the solutions of great problems by connecting whole bodies of previously unrelated or opposing subjects, as well as ideas, movements, cultures, persons, and so on.
Da Vinci was right: everything is connected. Every question, theory, business, discipline, art, language, story: at some level, the dots can be joined. Serious businesses know that business and storytelling are part and parcel; and most stories play one of several recurring beats to which we can all connect. A serious restauranteur will think deeply about culture, language, the palette. Follow your interest in food seriously enough and you end may wind up at Molecular gastronomy — also known as physics, to which nothing cannot be traced back to. Unifiers connect the dots; they use the interconnectedness of all things as the canvas on which their solutions to humanity’s problems are painted. Now and again, they produce a masterpiece.