Giving information a social life

Approaches to technology and economic development in the global south are of course informed by the prevailing culture. But culture also matters to technological development in the north, which has inherited some pretty heft concepts of its own.

Using the discoveries of Gödel, Wittgenstein, Kuhn and Polyani, futurist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang makes the point that information isn't something out there, a separate Platonic entity casting shadows on our computational cave, yet somehow discoverable and perfectible by our machines.

This hasn't led to a new appreciation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of computers and people. Instead, for most people it has had the unintended and unfortunate effect of encouraging us to think of "information" strictly as stuff that computers can handle. If it can be poured into a database of best practices, it's information; it if can't, it's not. The problem is that this kind of information is like the visible part of the iceberg. The other seven-eights are underwater and invisible. But that doesn't mean that your ship can't be sunk by it.

The great challenge of the future will be to turn information technologies from things that encourage us to narrow our conception of what knowledge is, to things that can more fully reflect the diverse ways that knowledge is produced and performed. You might say that we have to learn to give information technologies social lives.

While some extraordinary artists have made the point first - Jonah Lehrer's description of Cezanne's insight into how the mind sees is a fantastic example of how art can get the jump on scientific method - neurology has recently confirmed that our wetware interprets and imposes meaning on the sensory data it inherits.

We know more than we can tell. And culture is that knowledge on deposit.