Information as Food

What do you do when you go to another country and want to understand what matters to its people?

Go on social media/news article and see what’s trending in country x. Or speak to the locals and see what worries them most. But what’s breaking the internet often than not, is either politics or religion or the combination of the two.

Politicians in these countries have over time learnt to leverage religious institutions to promote their agenda while remaining secular. There is this unwritten contract entered between the religious institution and the ruling parties to promote the political agenda in exchange for tax free economic activities even at the expense of the state harming people.

So how does one go about dealing with information overload inspired by these bull markets of politics and religion?

Don’t get me wrong, information is very important… but too much of certain types of information tend to limit one’s ability to think clearly. Add biases, then all the conclusion you make are often inspired by information you received which often hinges on the type of information magnified by the variance amplifying institutions for their own motives (be it to sell adds, to inform policies or to purely generate revenue for the apps shareholders).

If we are to go by Claude Shannon’s definition, the father of information theory, information is a measure of the minimum volume of communication required to uniquely specify the message. Whenever this is not the case, information becomes noise.

In their shareholder’s letters dated 30th June 2012, Zak and Sleep of Nomad Partnership speak about “Information as Food” and in their letter, they contrast how David Attenborough sees himself versus Charles Darwin when it comes to their contribution of our general understand of nature and evolution.

David Attenborough was presented as “the man who has seen more of the world than any person who has ever lived. And that, the depth of his knowledge and the breadth of his enthusiasm has had a fundamental effect on how we view our planet.” The section finishes by saying “It must be true, must it not, and it’s a quite a staggering thought, that you have seen more of the world than anybody else who has ever lived”.

David response to that was modest but instructive. He replied “Well I suppose so, but on the other hand its fairly salutary to remember that perhaps, the greatest naturalist that ever lived and had more effect on our thinking than anybody, Charles Darwin, only spent four years travelling and the rest of the time thinking.”

It is clear from David’s reply that he himself would have preferred taking time to think, than taking time to travel to document all the geographical wonders and unheard species hidden in unreached corners of the world.

Contrast with Darwin. Darwin studied intensely and went away and thought about what his studies really mean. The ability to think through the information allows useful information to grow, to manifest. More importantly, we should be reminded that we are the product of our imagination. Therefore, what information we consume in effect, informs our imagination.

Attenborough understood that the human mind trumps endless data collection. What counts is the ability to make sense of such information, and this requires enough time for thinking. Seeing is not enough, thinking hard about what you see is more valuable than purely seeing to grace the eyes. In a world where the competition for eyeballs is at a warp speed, one wonders whether we ever get time to think. John Kearon is correct when he argues that “we think far less than we think we think — so don’t fool yourself”.

Zak and Sleep give their preference for less data collection and more thinking when it comes to investing. I of course subscribe to their take.

The journalist and Technologist Rangwasami’s advice to think of information in the same way we think about food. So if information is food, how do you decide what goes into your mind? Is it protein or sugar? How do you categorize the information, which one should be seen as sugar and which one should be seen as protein?

Interestingly Sleep and Zac explain the differences between information and food in term of quality standards. They argue that information on television often has little to no labelling-facts and fiction can be fused deliberately to mislead or drive click baits. So as a consumer of information in a world of information overload, one will need to think about information diets and strive to prevent buildup of toxins and diseases just as we do with food. After-all, one can also have information obesity, diabetics etc. It really depends how you choose to see it.

In contrast, Cesar Hidalgo’s book titled “Why Information grows” explains the important of useful information growth. In the book, Cesar expounds that something as simple as toothpaste gives an indirect access to the practical uses of the imagination (thinking), knowledge and knowhow that exist, or existed, in the nervous systems of people we have never met. He alludes that products which results from growth of useful and stable information are magical because they endow individuals with capabilities that transcend their own individual limits.

He further emphasizes the need for one to labour to understand and appreciate the fact that the products they enjoy daily are purely the crystallization of one’s imagination. Thus, it’s important to think of the source of information that is embodied in such products.

The interesting question but not without levity is — does the lack of certain products in our society say anything about the type of information we are growing or consuming? I recommend you should read Cesar’s Book; I promise you will come out a changed person.

Anthropologists Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler on their “Expensive Tissue Hypothesis” argue that for a given body size a primate’s metabolic rate is relatively static. What differs from primate to primate is the balance of tissues, most notably the tissues that are expensive to operate, principally the nervous system such as a brain and the digestive system. E.g. Human have small stomachs and large brains and in pigs the opposite is true. So, understand that humans are not designed for this frantic information world.

Lastly, the information we receive is often not as valuable in any meaningful way as you’re made to believe. Or even if the information is important or valuable, you won’t be able to affect it that much (in lay man’s terms — stop worrying too much about what is trending or breaking news, there is often not much in it anyways!!).

Here is a question for you — do you remember the news from two weeks ago on your favorite websites/new channel? I wonder if the news on your favorite TV station/media platform of two weeks ago is still important today…

In saying this, information just like food has a sell by date, after all, today’s news or what is trending on Twitter today is worthless after the next hour or next day. For this reason, the information that one should weigh heavily in thinking about what information to pay attention to, is that which has the longest shelf-life, with the highest weighting going to information that is almost axiomatic. Upon receiving certain information, run a simple experiment ‘Is this information going to matter in the day, a week, a month or in a year? Will it have overreaching consequences? In short, how stable is the information at hand?’ — If not very much, ignore it!

Today my ending quite is from Charlie Munger. “To get what you want, deserve what you want. Trust, success and admiration are earned not given”

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Ezekiel Lengaram

Ezekiel Lengaram

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Ezekiel Lengaram is a Researcher in Economics at Wits University. My teaching and research focus are on the theory of Macroeconomics, Computational Economics.