Friday, October 31, 2003

Ocean of nonsense? The elasticity of information

BBC story

Apparently, researchers at Berkeley have concluded that 800 megabytes of information is produced for each person on the planet every year. That's doubled since 1999, when they last checked. The conclusion is of course dependent on many other factors - just what is information? Does printing many copies of the same book create new information? But it's a good infofart anyway. And it reminds me of my own General Theory of Information, which runs as follows: The volume of traffic expands to fill the communications available. Seems obvious enough, especially as talk is free.
As with all the best maxims, though, it's the consequences that count. If you increase the communications capacity, the traffic will grow - not necessarily instantly, but it will do it.

We can assume that the increase in traffic is value-neutral - there is no reason why worthwhile messages will be any better communicated than nonsense. There can only be so many facts, valid judgments, relevant statements, truthful comments and the like around at any given moment. Obviously this will vary over time, but I'm quite sure it's fixed in the short run. There is no comparable limit on the generation of rubbish, though - after all, it can't be any harder to get it wrong than to get it right, the number of possible misconceptions and imaginings is infinite, and people appear to have a natural tendency to erroneous beliefs. Add the moderate but important contribution of propaganda and deliberate lies, and you'll see the full implications. Even if the total quantity of valid information does increase with capacity, it will increase less rapidly than the quantity of bullshit in the system. Increase the capacity, and the gap will be filled by more rubbish than wisdom.

The only exception is the case where genuine stuff didn't get through because of low capacity. In this case, an increase will clear the backlog - but even so, a greater increase in capacity is needed to clear a given amount of information due to the generation of nonsense.

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