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A holiday card to the industry – 2017

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We’re living in an explosion of information, or so we’re told. And we are, although the usual metrics tossed around … bytes added to the Internet in a unit of time … have little to do with it.

Information is, properly defined, the stuff that reduces uncertainty. Most of these bytes don’t do this. Some deliberately increase uncertainty because their publishers want to confuse us. Some decrease uncertainty but in the wrong direction — they encourage us to believe things that just aren’t so.

Then there’s entertainment. It accounts for a lot of those bytes, but reduces no uncertainty. Unless, that is, you think knowing more about the ways of The Force counts.

But even filtering all that out, we know a lot about a lot, and more every day.

About that word we. No matter the subject and what’s known about it, even though we might know a lot, most of us don’t.

We can’t. So while, for example, we know new species arise through “survival of the fittest,” we’re wrong.

A relative few of us know it’s more interesting than that: New species are the result of random DNA mutations, some of which are sufficiently advantageous within the mutant’s environment that he, she, or it leaves behind more descendants.

Except, there’s much more to it than that. If you’re curious, Google “epigenetics” to discover just one dimension of the overall complexity.

The survival-of-the-fittest we vastly outnumbers those of us who understand the random-mutation-and-reproductive-advantage version of evolutionary theory. That we, in turn, is far more numerous than those who know what’s known about the subject.

And that’s just one subject. Imagine how much the 7+ billion people on earth know in total — how much there is to know that no one of us will ever be aware of.

We reached that inflection point — the accumulation of knowledge that made it impossible for any of us to know even a small fraction of what all of us know — a very long time ago.

I think we’ve reached another inflection point in the accumulation of knowledge that is, in its own way, even more daunting. To understand what it is …

A month or so ago my wife called my attention to an article about Edward Witten, a physicist who researches “dualities in physics and math, emergent space-time, and the pursuit of a complete description of nature” (“A Physicist’s Physicist Ponders the Nature of Reality,” Quanta, 11/28/2017).

Prior to reading the article I wasn’t just ignorant about dualities in physics and math. I was ignorant that dualities is a subject, and only barely more aware of emergent space-time.

This is the new inflection point in human knowledge. We’re in a time when none of us knows even a tiny fraction of the subjects the collective we know something about.

We knew we were ignorant. We no longer even know what we’re ignorant about.

Faced with knowing none of us can even know all of the questions the collective we are asking, let alone what we know about the answers … faced with this, we’re each left with choosing how to cope.

There are those who simply reject it. They’re in denial, figuring anything they don’t understand just isn’t very important. Or, if it is, it’s really much simpler than what the so-called experts say.

But that makes no sense. Our brains are roughly the size of a cantaloupe. We’re using them to try to understand a universe that’s roughly 529,474,682,880,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger (linearly, assuming I did the math right). When someone thinks they might possibly have an accurate bead on what is and isn’t important to comprehend they’re displaying, I think, the height of arrogance.

If denial doesn’t work for you, consider despair. From nature’s perspective we aren’t merely physically miniscule, but as individuals our knowledge will forever be miniscule as well. Faced with this realization, giving up isn’t entirely irrational. What’s the point of learning anything, we might wonder, given the impossibility of putting even the slightest detectable dent in our individual ignorance?

What’s the point? Just turn it around. Our situation is I think, marvelous, maybe humbling, certainly not depressing. Every new discovery can be an unalloyed pleasure … like encountering Van Gogh for the first time. Human knowledge is a collection of experiences on a scale. Those on one end are merely nifty, those on the other awe inspiring. As Pogo put it, “We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”

If knowledge is wealth, then no matter where we each turn there’s an embarrassment of riches to be had.

Feel free to take as much as you want. There will be plenty left for the rest of us to enjoy.

Comments (7)

  • Thanks. Good post.

  • This brings to my mind the comment of what was carrying the turtle that carried the world, “turtles all the way down”, only in this case human knowledge is like “standing on the shoulders of giants” all the way up.

  • Wonderful article, though I wonder if we humans are, in fact, in the same position we were 50,000 years ago when we had to figure how to live in the world, as it presented itself to us, even though we understood about the same percentage as you quoted in your article.

    As to the fascinating Quanta article, I thought of three of my favorite philosophers. Kurt Godel proved that no one logical system (i.e., base on a single set of axioms) could decide the truth of every question that could be posed in that system. Ludwig Wittgenstein eventually came to the position that language (and now math?) is best viewed as a game whose results were fundamentally a function of the game rules, the game goals, and the intentions and roles of the game’s players.

    The third philosopher, Rene Descartes, I reluctantly believe, proved the existence of “God”. In his proof, the good news is that there is a Supreme Being. The bad news is that there is no way a human could completely understand the mind of such a Being, or even know for sure how much understanding said individual has of the Supreme Being.

    For me, a more pressing question, is reacting with hate and contempt towards another person, just for being a member of a group you don’t understand, a defining survival trait for homo sapiens?

    I would think that this a question to be answered no matter what our personal state of understanding the world is. It’s the same question “primitive” tribes answered successfully for at 100,000 years.

  • “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” – Marcus Aurelius

    And Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  • Bob,

    Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays! I think the first ape to utilize fire felt the same way as a scientist or explorer discovering something new. It is inherent in our species to be curious, to confront the unknown, and attempt to understand it. Without curious minds, we would not be here today. Also, there is a difference between information and knowledge/wisdom. The latter is useful, the former may or may not be depending upon content and context. Apply Sturgeon’s Law appropriately.



  • The joy of each day is do learn something new or teach some one else something new to them.

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