Previously, in what seems like another age, I argued here that four major information revolutions have occurred throughout human history. These four revolutions were associated with the emergence of information abstraction, information agencies, information artifacts, and information automation. At the moment, in the midst of a health pandemic that is also a dangerous infodemic, I have been thinking about the information crises that have come with each of these revolutions.
With the ability to imagine and articulate abstract concepts came the invention of lying. If the Garden of Eden is read as a reflection of the evolutionary emergence of imagining alternative realities, then information abstraction is the foundation for the original sin of doubting (with the help of a malicious agent) God’s intentions for the first humans.
With the establishment of the earliest cities and the information agencies needed for ordering their activities, lying became propaganda—the deformation of information for the rule of the polis. One could read the claims of the founders of Babel as benevolent: Let us build ourselves a city, make a name for ourselves, and live together safely. But who suffered and who benefited from that labor? Whose names were glorified? And what social distinctions or divisions existed and how were these managed?
The information artifacts that represent the third information revolution communicate a mixture of information, misinformation, and disinformation. Over millennia, we have developed complex historical, literary, and other methodologies in attempts to evaluate information and use it appropriately. Our semantic efforts are ultimately provisional, though, and the artifacts always remain to some extent suspect.
Now, in an age of information automation—including both the automated processing and the automated creation of information—we are overwhelmed with information that may not be information. The development of digital, networked information and communication technologies such as the internet, social media, mobile devices, and artificial agents has made sharing information easy and automatic. These have outpaced our previous strategies for information management, and our current information environment is polluted with disinformation and misinformation. We have created the Antilibrary of Babel.
The COVID-19 crisis heightens the unique features of our information revolution’s crisis: the speed, scope, and sources of communication. Regardless of value, messages are transmitted quickly and broadly without clear contextual information about their creation, credibility, currency, and channels of distribution.
When we are fully in crisis informatics mode—seeking information to address our uncertainties and anxieties and make sense of what we are experiencing—we are vulnerable to being misinformed. And when there is insufficient or incomplete information, that vulnerability grows. Even more so than before this crisis, as we wait for better information and information management systems, we need to be more attentive and analytical. We need to slow down, be aware of how we’re being affected, and verify and add context. We need to think more and consume and share less.