On the Spread of Untruth

In Richard Dawkins’ conception, human being is the medium through which information and ideas, or memes, spread. However, we constitute a poor medium which favors the spread of untruth rather than truth. As pointed out by Curtis Yarvin, human beings find nonsense as a more effective organizing tool than truth. To believe in truth is easy, but to believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. History is full of examples of this phenomenon in action: all organized religions (such as Christianity), Soviet Union, China’s Cultural Revolution, and today’s mainstream media and academia (what Nassim Nicholas Taleb called the Intellectual Yet Idiots).

We can also reinterpret the tale of the emperor’s new clothes. For kids, the moral is honesty and courage in speaking the truth. For adults, it is that the best proof of a cadre’s loyalty is her dedication to the absurdity and stupidity of the leader.

How to Hide a Secret in the Information Age

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, as Herbert Simon said. When attention is scarce, secrets can be hidden. Dialogues from G. K. Chesterton’s The Sign of the Broken Sword illustrate this vividly.

Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a pebble?
Flambeau: On the beach.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a leaf?
Flambeau: In the forest.
Father Brown: What does he do if there is no forest?
Flambeau: What does he do?
Father Brown: He grows a forest to hide it in. A fearful sin.
Flambeau did not answer.
Father Brown: And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it.

The Half-Life of Information

Facebookers write for the next few minutes or hours. Newspapermen write for the next few days. Corporate entertainers (consultants, economists, and all sorts of “thought leaders”) write for the next few months or, more rarely, years. A minority of academics write for the next decade or beyond. Men of letters write for time and for memory.

Life is short. The shorter the half-life of the information, the lower the signal-to-noise ratio, the less time you should spend on it.

Two Parables on the Information Economy

1. Immanuel Kant’s observations on student note-taking in 1778:

Those of my students who are most capable of grasping everything are just the ones who bother least to take explicit and verbatim notes; rather, they write down only the main points, which they can think over afterwards. Those who are most thorough in note-taking are seldom capable of distinguishing the important from the unimportant. They pile a mass of misunderstood stuff under what they may possibly have grasped correctly.

2. Jorge Luis Borges’ 1942 short story Funes the Memorious on a person with perfect memory:

With no effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.