If we were fish, we would think of information as our water. We swim in the Information Age, so deeply immersed in data, facts, emotions, and memories that they have become transparent to us. The world has been deeply changed by this. It is the fault, or due to the brilliance, of one man.
“Steve Jobs!” the smartest kid in the class might call out.
But no, not Steve Jobs.
If I were the instructor standing before this imaginary class, I’d say you have to go back to a period when the ideas for containing the ideas did not yet exist. I’d wait a few more moments for an answer. Maybe some kid in the back would say quietly, “Claude Shannon.”
Yes. Claude Shannon. Somebody you’ve probably never heard about. Before the silicon chip, before the PC and the iPhone, Claude Shannon expressed the ideas that made computers possible. His sweeping insights stand behind every email you’ve sent and every webpage you’ve loaded in your browser. Fake news, real revolutions, the acceleration of human evolution to its destruction or to a greater consciousness — we owe the road we travel now to Shannon’s 1937 study of electrical switches that were either off or on, binary switches that could express logical statements. When scientists added layer upon layer of complexity to those switches, they became computers.
Some of the abstract children spawned by Shannon’s intellect entered the real world. Some grew up to become monsters. Facebook is an engine of misinformation that Mark Zuckerberg vows to fix. Twitter is an artillery of hate that guns down truth. Shannon was familiar with World War II propaganda and worked on encryption projects, but could he have seen that information itself could become weaponized, not because it was true or false, but simply because there could be so much of it? What was theoretical in his day now draws blood.
Who is responsible for that?
Not Shannon, of course, but what about the inheritors of his vision? How much longer can Facebook, Twitter, and Google continue to say “oh, we’re just the pipes information travels in,” and walk away from their responsibilities? They are not just pipes. They cannot continue to occupy space between being public utilities and news organizations, reaping the benefits of both while assuming the responsibilities of neither.
Platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter can’t allow their good intentions to become weaponized. They can’t ignore hate speech in the name of making a buck. It is unfair to draw a straight line from the dawn of information theory to the social consequences of the Information Age, but there is a line to be drawn, however crooked it may be. We have to ask *how did we get here*? Shannon’s intellect was playful, but it’s time now for both the kids and adults to be in the room. If you want to know more, read A Mind At Play, by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman.
Thanks for giving this a read,