There are no ‘things’ in this world, there is only information, and yet information is the very thing that we want to ignore at all costs. Information is actually anathema to us – it is the very thing that we contrive to shut out from our lives, so that we can continue with our existence – such as it is – in a thoroughly ‘information-free’ fashion.
We don’t think that we’re in the business of ignoring or shutting out information however. Collectively speaking, we pride ourselves on being highly information-savvy; we pride ourselves on being very much at home with information and the processing of information – don’t we live in the ‘information age’, after all? And yet what we call ‘information’ isn’t information at all, it’s merely data. Data is a very different type of a thing indeed – it’s a different kettle of fish entirely, even though very few of us seem to appreciate the distinction. Data is dead stuff – it’s ‘facts and figures’, it’s a whole bunch of dry measurements that relate to static structures of one sort of another. We are as a culture orientated not towards information, as we like to imagine, but towards equilibrium states of one sort or another and ‘equilibria’ and ‘information’ are the antitheses of each other.
What we traffic in isn’t information at all but only data. We just don’t understand the difference. Gregory Bateson, the pioneer of cybernetics, defined information as ‘the difference that makes a difference’, but the mega-data streams that we concern ourselves with are all for the purpose of maintaining and stabilizing our current structures and systems. This is the type of confirmation known as confirmation in Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker’s model of pragmatic information and the key point about confirmation is that it has nothing to do with change. If for example we are doing research on how we might best improve or develop our product this may generate a lot of data but none of this data is going to take us away from our core agenda of how to improve our product and promote it more effectively. The data helps us to optimize our activity and optimization is a type of change, but its change with regard to how to better pursue the same old goal!
Properly speaking, we are a technological culture, not an information-loving one. We are invested in increasing our hold on nature, our control over nature, and any ‘information’ that helps us to do this is of course of great value to us. Control is the nature of our relationship with the world – we want to learn practical stuff about the world for sure but that’s only so we can exploit it better. This is directly analogous to human relationships – if I am only interested in finding out more about you so I can control you better then I’m not really interested in you. What I’m really interested in is me! The information I obtain about you is information that serves my interests so it is information that is telling me about myself not you; it’s information that is relevant to my agenda, to my purposes, and my agendas / purposes are me. There’s a filter between me and the world and that filter is my interests; my ‘interests’ are simply furthering myself in any given situation and so the filter is me.
The world – needless to say – is rather bigger than this filter so there is no way that I (when I’m invested in control) can be said to have a relationship with the world. I’m not interested in true information (which would tell me about the reality that lies beyond my agenda) – I’m only interested in the type of ‘information’ that implicitly confirms my pre-existent viewpoint in the world. I’m only interested in the type of information that agrees with my filter and which will therefore serve the function of stabilizing my view of myself and the world and what this means is that I’m only interested in the type of information that is ‘me being reflected back at myself’. This shows then that what we’re talking about here isn’t information since information isn’t me being reflected back at me! If information is ‘the difference that makes a difference’ then where’s the ‘difference’ here?
True information, W is the surprise factor – it is the mismatch between what I expect to be the case and what actually is the case. So if the only type of W that I’m interested in is the type of filtered W which confirms the validity of my assumed viewpoint there is very clearly going to be zero surprise factor involved here. There is going to be ‘zero mismatch’. What has actually happened here is that I have fallen into the deadliest trap there ever was, which is the trapped of having my assumptions unfailingly confirmed for me. We could also call this ‘the trap of self-reference’ – I wave my hand and then see the reflection of this movement waving back at me and so I, not knowing that this movement is only a reflection, react and set up an oscillation between myself and my unrecognized reflection. I’m talking to myself and I don’t know it – I say one thing and my reflection says another thing but really it isn’t ‘another thing’ at all but just the same thing going around and around in a circle…
This is very general illustration of how self-reference works and we may not be able to see how it applies to everyday life. Actually, every purposeful action is an exercise in self-reference because we’re reacting to a goal which we ourselves made; the same is true for all rational thought – we’re constantly reacting to events in a world that has been mapped out for us in every detail by our own thinking. Control is always self-referential therefore because control means that we are trying to get the world to accord with our own ideas for it. Another word for control is optimization – when we’re trying to optimize our game then the world invariably traps us in a circle of self-reference in exactly the way that we have just been describing. It’s not really the world that is trapping us of course – we trap ourselves and the world simply facilitates what we are doing. So I’m trying to optimize my game, trying to get better and better at realizing my agenda, and because this is my focus my environment will give me only two types of message – either it will give me the YES type or the NO type. Either the data that I am receiving tells me that I am getting close to obtaining my goal or it will tell me that I am getting further away. I can then use this data to refine my approach and get progressively better results. Both the [+] and the [-] data are confirmation – they are confirmation because they are confirming the validity of the question I am asking, which is “What is the best way of obtaining the particular goal that I am aiming at?” Neither YES or NO have any meaning other than in relation to my chosen goal and so what we have here is a closed system of meaning. YES and NO are both reflections of my goal, reflections of my agenda, and yet I have the perception that I genuinely am reaching out beyond myself and partaking in a wider reality. All that’s happening however is that the world is faithfully reflecting my own mind, my own thinking, right back at me – I’m not interacting with the world therefore, I’m interacting with myself.
This is actually the essence of the human situation, even though we never see it as such. The wanter, the desirer, only ever sees his own wants, his own desires, reflected back at him. As long as we are hoping to get something out of the world (or trying to avoid something in it) how will we ever see anything other than our own agenda reflected right back at us? We could of course argue that we aren’t always in a state of want, in a state of desire. We could argue that sometimes we aren’t trying to get something out of the word, or avoid some outcome that is implicit in the world. The thing about this however is that just as long as we are identified with our idea of ourselves, our image of ourselves then there is always this underlying agenda – the agenda of hanging onto our idea of ourselves! What we want to get out of the world is conformation that we – as this defined or conditioned self – actually exist, and what we are always trying to avoid is finding out the truth!
As long as I am identified with this construct called ‘the self’ then the type of information that I’m getting back from the universe is always going to be the confirmation type, which is information that is made up of YES and NO. It is always going to be the type of information that is telling me that I am either getting ‘hotter’ or getting ‘colder’. This is completely absorbing for me because this type of information matters more to me than anything else! I imagine that when I hit the jackpot of ‘YES-with-no-NO’ then all my problems are going to be solved, including the ‘big problem’ of how to arrange things so that I can be permanently validated by the universe. The solution of this problem is ‘the greatest outcome ever’ – this is ‘winning’ with a capital W. Nothing is as wonderfully attractive as the prospect of winning just as nothing is as disagreeably repellent as the prospect of losing, and yet both of these outcomes are projections of ‘the assumed viewpoint that I call myself’.
Nothing is as attractive to us as winning just as nothing is as unattractive as losing, yet what is gained or lost when all I am doing is ‘interacting with myself’? What changes? It is after all a ‘null situation’ either way… The wanter (or ‘the controller’) lives in a world in which all he ever sees is his own hopes and fears reflected back at him. He never sees beyond himself; he never sees reality. Either I see what I want and what I am attracted to and I try to obtain it or I see what I fear, what I am repelled by, and I am in a great hurry to get away from it. No matter which way it is I’m never going to get away from myself however – I’m still trapped in the same self-referential loop whatever way it works out. I don’t see the sterility of my situation because I imagine that ‘winning at the game’ (or ‘obtaining a successful outcome’) will somehow change things and this hope keeps me going. It never does change anything however –winning doesn’t change things any more than losing does. YES and NO both equal confirmation and ‘confirmation-type information’ stabilizes structures rather than destabilizing them. I can go on playing this hollow circular game forever therefore, thinking that I’m getting somewhere when I’m not.
In a technological society we’re all about the wanting. We’re all about playing games; we’re all about optimization and control. We are conservative in our approach rather than exploratory. Things don’t have to be this way though; our innate nature isn’t conservative and structure-loving – that’s just what happens when fear gets the better of us. Our innate nature is to be playful rather than controlling, curious rather than greedy and fearful. We don’t have to go down the road of being a technological-controlling society with no interest in anything other than actualizing our own unexamined agendas – we could just as well go down a different road entirely and start being interested in the world for its own sake. We could tune into some real information for a change. This – we could say – is like being a free-thinking artist or philosopher rather than an obsessive game-player. We’re interested in a bigger world than the world of our own hopes and fears. Being an artist or philosopher means that we’re simply interested in what it feels like to be in the world without always having to be in control; it means that we’re interested in what it feels like to be living without an agenda. And as it happens, ‘living without an agenda’ is the only way to live – anything else is being afraid to live…!
Image from Southpark