Information Poisoning

It goes without saying that information has never been so readily available and easily accessible to human beings all over the planet. Judging by the sheer quantity and diversity of the data in our grasp, we should perhaps be the most intelligent and informed people to have lived so far, but it becomes increasingly and worryingly clear, we are not. It seems worthwhile to consider why,  as the supply of information grows, our knowledge diminishes

The ignorance of the society of knowledge

Written by Robert Kurz
January 2002

Knowledge is power: this is an old motto of modern bourgeois philosophy, which was taken up by the 19th century European workers movement. Knowledge was once seen as something sacred. Men have always striven to accumulate and transmit knowledge. Every society is ultimately defined by the kind of knowledge at its disposal. This is just as true for natural as for religious knowledge, or for theoretical-social reflection. In the modern era knowledge is represented, on the one hand, by official knowledge, characterized by the natural sciences and, on the other hand, by the “free-floating intelligentsia” (Karl Mannheim) of social-theoretical critique. These forms of knowledge have predominated since the 18th century.

It seems incredible that for some years now a discourse has been propagated concerning the “society of knowledge” which is arriving with the 21st century; as if true knowledge would only now be discovered and society had not been a “society of knowledge” until now. The champions of the new catchphrase are at least suggesting something on the order of intellectual progress, a new meaning, a more lofty appreciation and a generalization of knowledge in society. Above all, it is claimed that the supposed economic application of knowledge is assuming a completely different form.

Philosophy of the Media

One can note quite a bit of euphoria, for example, in the German philosopher of the media Norbert Bolz: “One can speak of a big bang of knowledge. And the galaxy of western knowledge is expanding at the speed of light. Knowledge is applied to knowledge and thus demonstrates the productivity of intellectual labor. The true intellectual act of the future is the design of knowledge. And the more significant the manner in which the productive forces become intelligence, the more that science and culture must converge. Knowledge is the last resource of the western world.”

Strong words. But what is concealed behind them? Perhaps the fact that the concept of the “society of knowledge” is being used more or less as a synonym for the “information society” will shed some light on the question. We live in a society of knowledge because we are buried in information. Never before has so much information been transmitted by so many media at the same time. But is this deluge of information really identical to knowledge? Are we informed concerning the nature of this information? Do we really know, finally, what kind of knowledge this is?

Strictly speaking, the concept of information by no means coincides with the well-elaborated comprehension of knowledge. The meaning of “information” is understood in a much broader sense and also refers to mechanical procedures. The sound of a horn, the automatic message announcing the next stop on the train, the ringing of the alarm clock, the panorama of the TV news, the public address system at a supermarket, the oscillations of the Stock Exchange, the weather forecast … all of this is information, and we could continue the list ad infinitum.

Trivial Knowledge

It is, of course, a question of knowledge, but of a very trivial kind. It is the kind of knowledge with which today’s adolescents grow up. Anyone younger than forty years old is already technologically-communicatively armed to the teeth. Screens and displays are almost part of their bodies and sensory organs. They know they have to submit to information in order to access the internet, and they know how to “download” information from the net: for example, how to “download” a hit song. And one of this generation’s favorite means of communication is writing, that of the “Short Message Service” or SMS [text messaging or “texting”], which appears on the display of cell phones. There, the maximum communication is limited to 160 characters.

It is strange that the technological armamentarium of youthful naiveté should be elevated to the status of an integral part of a social icon and associated with the concept of “knowledge”. From the point of view of a “productivity of intellectual labor” or of an “intellectual act of the future”, this is a little disappointing. Perhaps we shall get closer to the truth if we understand what is meant by “intelligence” in the society of knowledge or of information. Thus, in a typical economic news item published in the spring of 2001, one can read: “At the request of the Canadian Space Agency, the Tactex Company of British Columbia has developed intelligent fabrics. A series of minuscule sensors which react to pressure are sewn into pieces of cloth. This cloth will first be tested for use as automobile seat covers. It recognizes who is sitting in the driver’s seat…. The intelligent seat recognizes the driver’s behind.”

For an automobile seat, this is surely a great achievement. We have to admit it. But it cannot be taken seriously as a paradigm for the “intellectual act of the future”. The problem lies in the fact that the information society’s concept of intelligence—or of knowledge—is modeled specifically upon so-called “artificial intelligence”. We are speaking of electronic machines which, by means of data processing, have an increasingly expanding storage capacity to simulate routine activities of the human brain.

Intelligent Objects

One often hears talk of the “intelligent house”, which regulates its own heating and ventilation, or of the “intelligent refrigerator”, which orders milk from the supermarket when it is running low. From horror literature, we recognize the “intelligent elevator”, which unfortunately became evil and threatened the lives of its users. Among the new creations are the “intelligent shopping cart”, which calls the consumer’s attention to special offers, and the “intelligent racket” which, with an embedded electronic system, allows the player a special, more potent strike.

Will this be the final stage of modern intellectual evolution? A grotesque imitation of our most trivial everyday actions by machines, thus achieving a superior intellectual consecration? As everything suggests, the marvelous society of knowledge thus appears precisely as an information society because it is bent on reducing the world to an aggregation of information and data processing, and in permanently extending the latter’s field of application. Above all, two categories of “knowledge” are in play: knowledge of signs, and functional knowledge. Functional knowledge is reserved for the technological elite which constructs, manufactures and maintains the systems of “intelligent” materials and machines. The knowledge of signs, to the contrary, has to do with machines, but also with their users, not to speak of their human objects. Both have to react automatically to particular information or stimuli. It is not necessary to know how these things work; it is only necessary to process the data “correctly”.

Programmable Behavior

In the society of knowledge, the basis is provided for human behavior as well as that of machines, and consequently by information science, which is used to program functional sequences. One works with discrete and mechanically repeatable processes, with formal means, through a sequence of signs (algorithms). This sounds fine for the functioning of hydraulic lines, fax machines and automobile engines; it is very good that there are specialists in these fields. When, however, the social and mental behaviors of human beings are also representable, calculable and programmable, we face the materialization of the terrible visions of the modern negative utopias.

This type of social knowledge of signs suggests much less daring flights than those of Pavlov’s famous dog. At the beginning of the 20th century, the physiologist Ivan Petrovitch Pavlov discovered the so-called conditioned reflex. A reflex is an automatic reaction to an external stimulus. A conditioned or motivated reflex is one in which this reaction can also be incited by a secondary, learned signal, which is linked to the original stimulus. Pavlov associated the dog’s innate salivary reflex when it saw its food with a signal, and was finally able to provoke this reflex using the signal alone.

It seems that social and intellectual life in the society of knowledge—or, rather, of information—must be oriented towards conduct which corresponds to a system of conditioned reflexes: we are being reduced to what we have in common with dogs, since the schematics of reflex stimulus-reaction have everything to do with the concept of information and “intelligence” of cybernetics and information science. The bulk of our actions in life are increasingly supervised by numbers, rules, clusters and signals of all kinds. This knowledge of signals, however, the reflex process of information, is not demanded only in the field of technology, but also at the highest social and economic levels. Thus, for example, it is just as they say: governments, “managers”, anybody with a job, in short, everybody, must permanently observe the “market signals”.

This miserable knowledge of signals is not, truly speaking, any kind of knowledge at all. A mere reflex is not, after all, any kind of intellectual reflection, but exactly the contrary. Reflection means not only that someone is functioning, but also that this person can reflect “upon” this or that function and question its meaning. This miserable aspect of reduced knowledge-information was already foreseen by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in the 1950s, when in his Critique of Everyday Life he described the impending information era: “One acquires some ‘knowledge’. But what exactly does it consist of? It is neither real knowledge (Kenntnis) nor that which is acquired by processes of reflection (Erkenntnis), nor a power over what is observed, nor, finally, real participation in events. It is a new form of observation: a social gazing upon the portrait of things, but reduced to the loss of meanings, to the maintenance of a false consciousness and to the acquisition of pseudo-knowledge without one’s own participation….”

The “Meaning of Life”

In other words, the question of the meaning and the final end of every person’s acts itself becomes impossible. If individuals become identical with their conditioned functions, they are no longer in any condition to question themselves or the environment which surrounds them. To be “informed” means, then, to be completely “in form”, formed by the imperatives of the system of technological, social and economic signals; to function, therefore, like the communications port of a complex circuit. And nothing more. The young generation of the so-called society of knowledge is perhaps the first to lose the naive question about the “meaning of life”. There is not enough room on the display screen for that. Those who have been “informed” since they were children no longer even understand the meaning of the word “critique”. They identify this concept with that of the critical error, the indication of a serious problem which must be quickly eliminated when running a program.

In these conditions, reflexive intellectual knowledge is held to be fruitless, like a kind of philosophical folly which we no longer need. Be that as it may, one has to live with this pragmatically. The first and only commandment of this reduced knowledge says: this must be immediately applicable to the ruling system of signals. What is debated is the “information marketing” on “information markets”. Intellectual thought must be reduced to the status of “information”. For example, what a “historian” of the future will be like has already been demonstrated by the historian Sven Tode, of Hamburg, with his doctoral dissertation.

Under the title of History Marketing he writes, as part of his assignment, the biographies of corporations that were commemorating the anniversaries of their founding; he also helps them maintain their archives. His great achievement: working on behalf of a North American corporation that was involved in a patent dispute over a specialized piece of equipment for fire hoses, Tode unearthed archives which saved his employers seven million dollars.

More and more of the unemployed, individuals subjected to a financial starvation diet and the ridiculed bearers of a socially devalued knowledge of reflection, are forced to transform their thought, reducing it to the trivialized contents of functional knowledge and signal recognition, in order to remain in step with an alleged progress and to remain marketable. What arises from this is a type of “philosophy of the intelligent automobile seat.” It is truly unfortunate that men instructed in conceptual thought should allow themselves to be degraded to the condition of decadent clowns of the information era. The society of knowledge finds itself utterly dispossessed of spirituality, and therefore even in the sciences of the spirit, the spirit is being expelled. What remains is an infantilized consciousness which plays with useless things disconnected from knowledge and information.

Knowledge degraded into “information”, however, has not proven to be the economic stimulant which it was expected to be. The New Economy of the society of knowledge began to collapse as soon as it was proclaimed. This, too, has its reason; since knowledge, in whatever form, unlike material goods or services, is not reproducible in “labor” and, therefore, in the creation of value, as an economic object. Once it appears in the world, it can be reproduced without cost, in whatever quantity desired. In his 1845 critique of the German economist Friedrich List, Karl Marx had already written: “The most useful things, such as knowledge, have no exchange value.” This also holds true for the currently reduced knowledge-information, whose usefulness may be doubted.

Hence the scanty intellectual reflection which emanates from the prophets of the supposed new society of knowledge. The mountain of data grows, real knowledge diminishes. The more information, the more mistaken the predictions. A consciousness without history, deposited in the timelessness of “artificial intelligence”, has lost any kind of orientation. The society of knowledge, which knows nothing about itself, can only bring about its own ruin. Its remarkably weak memory is at the same time its only consolation.