On Information

One might imagine that, at some point in the past, the acquisition of “information” was seen as an additive benefit to an individual’s ability to move through life. This ability—again, in this imagined past—was somehow linked with another phenomena thought of as “knowledge”—the more information one accumulated, the more knowledge in their store.

This imagined past is not, of course, an objectively and historically existing entity. History itself is far too fractured and non-linear, and the idea that concepts like “information” and “knowledge” could be discussed in any easy way would be rebuked by a scholar familiar with the academic literature in virtually any field.

And yet, the impulse to consider all information as an added benefit to human life remains. And it’s accelerated with the advent of digital technologies. Here’s an (admittedly somewhat silly) example.

In a trailer for Revolt’s recent hip-hop “hot takes” show State of the Culture, former rapper-turned-media personality Joe Budden adopts a presidential ethos to address a crowd of paid extras. “Decoding the culture” being the theme of the show (the “culture” referring to hip-hop culture), Budden continuously refers to the relationships between information and culture, stating bombastically at one point that

In this digital age there is an endless need for information. It is more important now than ever before. With more information, comes more understanding, more acceptance, more unification. Information is the key to unlocking our differences.

I use this as an example not because I find the show particularly important to larger conceptions of information, but because it is so clearly a commercialization of the very idea of information, which is, in fact, the product Budden sells. I also do not single out this show as an exceptional example in any sense except the obviousness of its strategy. Budden exists in a country plagued by structural racism and disenfranchisement. The fact that he has managed to thrive and develop a show for a black-owned television network makes me more forgiving than when I see—oh, let’s take a quick look… Oh here’s a great headline from Huffington Post: “An Amy Winehouse Hologram is Going on Tour In 2019 and Some Fans Aren’t Happy.”

This type of “information” isn’t going to make you more informed. At best, and this is a stretch, reading the Huffington Post might distract you from your day to day nuisances and make you the target of advertisements. I happen to think the latter one is actually quite dangerous, but you might be in the market for a new pair of sneakers.

Here’s my point. Information does not always mean the same thing. It can mean knowledge. It can also mean the data about you and me constantly being distributed and traded across digital networks. In cognitively-dangerous conspiracy circles, information can mean the infinitesimally small data points that seemingly contradict established scientific consensus. (Of course, it nearly never does, at least in the way it’s purported to by conspiracy theorists.)

We absolutely must rid ourselves of the notion that information, and access to information, is necessarily a benefit to our collective life on this planet. And we must be compassionate but firm on this point. The “information” received on Breitbart about climate change is not true, and I have yet to see a single article from Breitbart that would pass my introductory course on writing and research.

The internet has flattened the status of all information, because it all seems to exist side-by-side. With the scandals emerging nearly constantly regarding the circulation our data, we are seeing cracks in this dangerous ideology. Still, public citizens need to work to re-instill the concept of credible information. And we need to do so not just with our dollars but with our eyes, which have themselves been commodified as “streams” and “clicks.”

In lieu of a prescriptive remedy, here is one from Franco “Bifo” Berardi:

[T]he task of the general intellect is precisely this: to escape from paranoia, to create zones of human resistance, to experiment with autonomous forms of production based on high-tech/low-energy models, to interpellate the people with a language that is more therapeutic than political. (The Soul at Work)

Fostering a nuanced approach that asks whether particular information/information sources are beneficial to collective life is this first step toward the crucial project described by Berardi.