Information apocalypse

iTimes June 2006

This article appears in iTimes – June 2006 edition.

I sell something so virulently addictive that I put Pablo Escobar to shame.

I sell information. I sell information, as if I, and I alone, have the keys to solve the problems of collaboration, productivity and peace by better use of information.

Truth be told, we’ve always been surrounded by information. And we’ve always managed rather well.

Humans are defined by their ability to tune into and appropriately respond to sensory perception, feelings and emotions and instinct. We are information junkies – all of us. We thrive on external stimuli to make our lives interesting. Touch, smell, sight, the incredible spectrum of emotions we go through in a single day define our lives and who we are. We define our lives by how interesting our stimuli are, and how we respond to them – whether through inebriation, drugs, meditation, murder, rape, prayer, silence, music, art, violence or the thousands of other ways through which we respond to our environment as we see fit – information is the silent force that drives who we are, what we do and how we do it.

Like air, it is all around us. We are bombarded with it – literally, since with the evolution of mobile telephony and satellite TV, almost every corner of Earth is bombarded with bits of information every second of every day. The problem is, not every one can access this information. Or more accurately, while we’ve always been able to access information through our bodies and what is within our geo-physical reach, information from beyond our borders can only be accessed through devices such radios, TV, PC’s and mobile phones.

Humans have evolved to embrace such devices. We are slaves to them – the couch potato, geek, SMS addict and Bill Gates all different manifestations of the same malaise. We are hooked to devices that provide us with information to tune into or tune out of the world at large.

This begs the question, has mankind’s exponential growth in harnessing the power of information resulting in a better world? Or, with up-coming technologies such as presence aware devices (that can pinpoint where you are, know whether you are free or busy and vibrate, beep, blip or play Backstreet Boys ring tones accordingly) we can really envision free time as time disconnected from a sentinel and omnipresent web and internet?

Something obviously is wrong.

Despite the promise of free time, time to spend with our lovers if married, or at the pub if not, our Blackberry’s and Palm’s are always within our reach – alerting us of urgent emails and impending deadlines. We do not turn off our mobiles phones, our TVs and PCs are always on standby, our email clients primed every 3 minutes to check for…. well, spam. And yet, we are insatiable. More and more information is desired – even though we haven’t figured out what to do with what we already posses. Information is our fix – we measure our manhood (if male) or our emancipation from it (if female) by the perceived liberation that technology and information affords us. That a geriatric man in the US Federal Reserve can send jitters through open markets means that some hapless stock broker is beeped in the middle of night with a fall in stock that bears no relevance to the fact that he is in Colombo, bitten by mosquitoes, in the middle of a blackout is one example of how useless information can be. How pointless, in this age of instant news, information can be in building a better life.

La Dolce Vita – the Good Life – is the central promise of all technology and information. From door cooling fridges to air-conditioners that bring Nuwara Eliya to Colombo, technology is the new opium of the masses, since even religion is now proselytized increasingly through the web than through eroding congregations. With technologies such as PCs, TVs, radio, PDA’s and mobiles phones come an even greater promise of information that helps build the good life. Sri Lanka is just waking up to the possibilities of a true information society – where we are all connected in one way or another to a ubiquitous web of information that bombards us with details of shopping, sports, lifestyle, politics, news and other content that is personalized to individual tastes and purchasing power.

The new globalization is invisible – it is electronic and it is mobile. The good life is only achieved through camera phones, door cooling fridges, high-definition video, plasma TV’s and the Xbox 360. Without these, we are nothing.

Problem is, in our information age, marginalization of those without access to such devices is a very real threat. Sri Lanka, along with the rest of the developing world, share a bond of chaotic humanity that is a great challenge to the technocrat who wants to flood societies with cybercafés to promote an information revolution. However, this chaotic humanity of cows, humans, dogs is a vital social structure with its own sophisticated information management architectures. Caste systems, traditional mediation and alternative dispute resolution are two examples of extremely complex information management structures – that preserve social order by providing ways through which information, delivered through the right channels at the appropriate time, ensures that everyone knows their place in society, what they should be doing and what they can do to avoid conflict turning into violence.

These systems are easily scoffed at – but in their efficiency at maintaining order through centuries is something that modern day technology and information management systems have yet to parallel.

Problem is, while we’ve always lived in information rich environments, today, we are mere glyphs in a complex matrix of information relationships. Our wives we SMS, our colleagues we chat through IM’s, our clients we email, our news we get through RSS feeds or websites, our entertainment we download onto our PC’s, phone or iPod’s, our vacations we scout through 3D immersion, our dates we fix online.

What we have lost in essence, is the human touch – since a letter, a coffee with a friend, a call without an agenda or even a postcard from a foreign place – these are now exotic, rare and dying in an age of Flickr, Google Video, Gmail and 3G – technologies that allow us to experience the adrenalin rush of a roller-coaster and at the same time SMS our mothers back in Colombo that we are enjoying ourselves responsibly.

But really, do we care?

We already live in an age where what is virtual and real are coalescing – take the case in 2005 of a Chinese gamer who killed another gamer because of an argument about a sword in a online game they were both into. Or just more recently, the case where details of an attack on a school in Kansas in the US, posted onto myspace.com, resulted in the arrests of several deviants who were planning a killing spree on the lines of the Columbine massacre a few years ago (what is with the US, guns and violent teenage angst anyway?) Technologies like Google Earth, though they serve no serious purpose at the moment, allow me to point out my mother’s home in Sri Lanka to those who didn’t till then know that Sri Lanka existed as a separate country in relation to India. 2 million users of Dialog mobile telephony in Sri Lanka exchange millions of SMS per year – there are entire friendships that are maintained via SMS, because they are too busy to meet up in real life, even though they may only be a block away from each other. I IM my colleagues downstairs instead of calling them up and we are all most often caught up in our own iPod world – tuning out Colombo and the heat, chilling to the grooves of the now banned Buddha Bar available freely for download on the web. We go for coffee not with friends, but with our laptops.

We live in cocoons that we rarely emerge from. Even in daylight and in public, we are protected from the obscenity of the masses from information that is our own – our Playstation Portable, our iPod, our laptop, our PDA and our mobile phone. But in each device and through each device, we are also expanding our horizons. From news tailored to our parochial interests to our particular pornographic fetish (iPod friendly Lolita videos anyone?) the information age is defined by technologies that no longer require us to temper our personality traits to live harmoniously with others. Our essential anonymity is key – our blogs are racist, we play Doom 3 to live vicariously someone else’s war against terrorists, we project our every intimate personal desire on to the web, in the hope that someone, somewhere, finds it kinky enough to leave a response. We are entering a world where we are socially exclusive, virtually inclusive, where we have more friends online than in our neighbourhood. We are enervated in real life, but are loquacious in our ideas for social change in our blogs – so long as someone else does all the spade work.

In some ways, this is no longer an information age is wrong. This is simply, our world today. Connected, always-on – we are the system.

I sell information, but I don’t sell knowledge and wisdom. I can’t.

Wisdom and knowledge are not features of technology and information alone – at least not yet. More knowledge is still to be found in good library than on the internet or web. More wisdom is found through a village Elder than all of Google. Today’s most sophisticated and powerful Artificial Intelligence (AI) programmes struggle to answer natural language queries and spelling errors, issues humans overcome with ease. We get SMS updates on killings in the East of Sri Lanka, but do we really know the context and what gave rise to the violence? “Bringing Peace to Sri Lanka” in Google brings up 3 million+ hits – none of which will bring peace alone and some of which may actually contribute to greater violence. We are zealous in posting opinions on the web on conflict and peace, but can’t contextualise and frame the issues we speak of since all we have is information to barter and no knowledge to make sense of it.

Is information alone going to make the world a better place? Connected, yes. Interesting, perhaps. Better, debatable. Debatable in some circles that is – for most others, it’s a way of life now and there’s no turning back.

I peddle information to make lives better. That’s my spiel, that’s my angle, that’s my take on this so-called continuous partial attention to what’s happening around me. I believe in technology and the promise of greater access to information as a great leveller of society.

As Sri Lanka joins the world in an orgiastic blogosphere, we tend to forget the violence in our backyards, those visceral examples of why violence needs to be stopped if ever we are to truly talk about the benefits of an information society for all. No amount of SMS’s, MMS’s, high-definition digital videos, high resolution cameras, discussions on blogs, websites brings home the smell of a burnt and rotting carcass, flies inhabiting once living tissue and limbs thinly joined to a charred frame.

Now that’s visceral –information that our news sources – RSS headlines, SMS updates, emails, video even – so often dilutes or renders impersonal. Knowledge that this is real, is occurring today and needs to be stopped along with the wisdom necessary to overcome these cycles of violence is what, at the end of the day, help make all the petabytes of information we have on tap, truly useful for the advancement of society.

Till then, I’m open for business.

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