"What do we really know? Hmmm." I pondered as we walked.
I was out with the dog the other night. The quiet tranquil nature of empty suburban streets is a great place for deep thinking. The cold chill of winter keeps one from wandering too far off topic while wandering aimlessly in the streets. Dogs make wonderful intellectual companions for these types of journeys because they don't interrupt with too many questions. They are very good listeners.
I was pondering information quality, and I foolishly started to wonder about how much inaccurate information was choking up my memory. Certainly, there are lots of spin, lies, half-truths, deceptions and other stuff built up over the years from less than quality sources like politics, news and TV. Somethings in my memory are just easy simplifications. Somethings are out right fabrications. There is also the changing nature of science, and our non-stop quest for learning. Some of my knowledge is just 'relative', it wouldn't stand up to a universal judge. It is considered true here and now, but won't be in the future. In an overall sense, how much of this is really accurate?
If you factor in all of the different reasons for low quality, and take a big sweeping guess, the amount of truth in our brains could be lower than 30%. Just a wild guess, but I could easily believe that 1 in every 3 three facts in my brain are true, while the other 2 are questionable for all sorts of reasons. I am just speculating of course, but in this misinformation age, we are full of a tremendous amount of low quality knowledge. And it feels like it is growing at an ever increasing rate, although that might just be our ability to confirm that it is suspect.
THOSE WHO FORGET HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT
In the past, mankind was mostly ignorant of the accuracy of their information. They could take pride in their depth of knowledge without ever knowing how dubious it really was. Now all we have to do is check wikipedia and we can instantly find out that truth, well, err at least a pointer towards the truth.
How often have I pulled forth some ancient fact from the depths of my brain, only to discover that it was fundamentally untrue? Worse still is how those facts actually make it into my head in the first place. Some were obviously from disreputable sources, but others had come from well-known authorities, and were still incorrect. My problem is not loss or corruption of memory, it is the opposite, these 'facts' stay for far too long. If I just dumped them faster, I might find they were more accurate overall.
It is oddly telling. It allows us to guess that this huge degree of inaccuracy in our current knowledge is actually some type of pointer towards the future. The Renaissance was an awaking about the world that we live in. A moment when we first opened our eyes and saw it for what it actually was. This in turn drove the foundations for the industrial age, where we learned to create and use an unlimited number of machines. One of those machines, the computer, has driven us into an information age, where we collect huge piles of information, about virtually everything in this world. There is a trend here. The next age will follow along in this sequence.
Even though we have built up a tremendous collection of fantastic machines, they do not serve us well. We can build things, but we have trouble maintaining them. Our massive and complex cities crumble around us. We are forever fighting a losing battle against entropy; like a runner that has leaned too far forward we are continually off balance. We must continue to build to move forward, we don't know how to preserve what we have and we don't know how to live within our environmental means. We grow at a severe cost to the world around us.
With all of our equipment and learning, collecting data is still a hit or miss proposition. We just guess at what we want to collect and how it is structured. It is not orderly and we don't have any underlying theories that drive our understanding. Computer Science is still so young that is frequently wrong. Often it is just random guessing. We are currently only utilizing a small fraction of the capabilities of our computers because we keep bumping into complexity thresholds each time we try to build truly sophisticated systems. We are trapped with crude software.
Even thought we can collect the data, we continuously fail to be able to mine or interpret it. We gather the stuff, format it and then save it to backup tapes. But we get little actual use from all of our work in collecting it. Some decisions are made from the data, but given the real amount of underlying information contained in our efforts we could actually use what we have to make really sophisticated decisions. To actually know, for fact that we are changing things for the better. If we understood what we have.
THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD
Given those trends, it is not hard at all to predicate the future. The next step in the sequence. The path we must take is the only one available: machines to labour for us physically and mentally lead to vast infrastructures and vast piles of information. We built up these things, but we don't understanding them, and we have trouble keeping them going.
It is not like we will wake up one day and the light will get turned on, but I imagine that over time like a dull and steady wind blowing away the haze, much of what we know will become clear and finally fit into place. It will be a modern day Renaissance reoccurring not with our perspective of the world around us, but with our perspective of the information and knowledge that we have collected. It will take time. Many years, decades or even a century or two, but one day there will be an 'age of clarity', where mankind can finally see the information around them for what it actually is. That is, if we survive the turmoil of our current societies; we have so many dangers that await us, because of what we know, but don't yet understand.
And what could we expect in such an age? I imagine that we will have a real understanding of information, probably based on a currently unknown science. Maybe several. We will know how to quickly, conveniently monitor and collect information for any questions. Inherently, we will understand the truthfulness of what we collect, and we'll be able to immediately use this information to ascertain whether things are improving or getting worse. The term 'immediately' being one of the very key points.
Unlike now, this won't be a big effort, but rather something simple that people do as a matter of due diligence. Government effectiveness for example, will be based on simple true numbers that show that things are improving or getting worse. Unlike the statistics of our day, these numbers and their interpretation, based on science will be irrefutable. We will be able to show cause and effect relationships between policies and real life. We will be able to measure the effectiveness, not guess at it. If we say things are getting better, it won't just be 'spin'.
Underneath, if we capture enough data, we will get a vibrant picture of all of the relationships, how they fit with each other and what they really mean. When we choose to make changes, they will not be partially-informed guesses, they will be tangible deterministic improvements to our societies that will work as expected. In the same way that the industrial age leapt from wildly building things to the reproducible industrialization of products with a tremendous amount of consistent quality, we will shift our understanding of the data around us. Like the difference between B&W photography and color we will learn how to start really capturing the information that is of real value, and we will learn how to really interpret it.
AT THE EDGE OF REASON
Does it sound too overly deterministic or crazy? Whatever comes in the future, it must be something that isn't here now. So, if it isn't pushing the envelop of convention, then its not really much of a prediction, is it? Jules Verne wrote about ships that travelled underwater, a famously crazy concept if ever there was one, except that it now has become common knowledge. He wrote about air ships, defying gravity and hanging in the sky with birds, clearly another bit of wackiness. Yet, this too is common, and rather boring now.
Does it sound very similar to what we have now? For all we know, we know so very little. We have many approaches and methods to really prove things, to get the the real underlying truth, but because we can't do that easily on a grand scale we are awash in misinformation. All of this low quality knowledge chokes our pathways and keeps us from progressing. It becomes food for subjective arguments, and endless discussions. And while some of us may suspect falsehoods, proving it is costly and often distracting. We can't fight all of the battles all of the time, so the low quality stuff washes over us like a tsunami.
Sometimes when I am out walking the dog, my mind drifts around to us being so sophisticated that there is not much left in this world that we don't know. That 'proposition' is comforting in many ways, but patently false. Like the pre-Renaissance societies, we think we have reached some level of sophistication, but we barely even realize how to keep our own existence from spiraling out of control. And what we don't know, is the question: "what do we really know?" We feel pride in having built up knowledge bases like the World Wide Web, but realistically the things are a mess. What good is a massive unorganized pile of data, if we can't use it to answer the serious questions in our lives? We live in an age where subjective arguments are possible for most of what we commonly deal with in our lives. Everything is up for grabs; everything is based on opinion. We can barely distinguish the quality of our facts, let alone position them into some coherent and universally correct structure of the world around us. For all that we know, we are still incredibly ignorant.
The next big thing then is obvious. If we are too survive, then we have to pass through the Clarity Age. We have no choice. If this understanding hasn't already popped into someone else's brain, it was bound to sooner or later. You can't get very far down the path, if you don't know where the path lies. It is murky now, and for us to progress it must be clear.
Woof, woof, woof! My thinking and wanderings were interrupted because the dog spotted a raccoon. I was riped from the depths by the pulling, jumping and barking. In the here and now, I am reminded that it is best if I move on quickly to keep the dog from making too much racket. I don't want to wake up my whole neighborhood with the commotion. However much I long to spend time in the future, I must live with the world around me as it is now. These dark ages are apt to last a while, possibly my entire life. I ought not to waste it, pining for enlightenment.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I publishing this piece in both my Irrational Focus, and The Programmer's Paradox blogs because it is written for both audiences. One is a general place for ranting, while the other is aimed specifically at software developers. This piece transcends both genre.