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Sunday, January 21, 2018

We are starving for high-quality information

The quality of information is at an all-time low. Could it explain some of society's problems?

A nother day, another job interview. The call came unexpectedly on my cell phone instead of my real telephone. The voice of the caller, also on a cell phone, was (as usual) distorted to the point of unintelligibility and was mixed with loud computer glitches.

I was hunched over my desk, a finger in one ear, the volume turned way up. Forget about answering the questions. All my concentration was focused on trying to extract some semblance of English from the distorted waveforms that were blasting into my eardrums.

I surmise that companies are now handing out cheap cell phones to their employees to save the cost of maintaining a centralized exchange. It turns a pleasant phone conversation into a stressful, torturous exercise in signal processing. And the company ends up selecting employees on the basis of their hearing acuity.

One more reason to despise cell phones: because of this miserable invention I may be trapped forever in academia—nowadays a vast wasteland of pretense and fake knowledge. Even long-distance phone calls back in the days of analog were better than this.

Then there's this new fad of blinking, flickering video on TV commercials. Even documentaries are disrupted every few seconds by rapid cuts and fake video noise, mimicking the effect of crude video editing. Broadcasters have figured out that TVs are on but ignored, no doubt thanks to the decreasing quality of the information on them, so they resort to blasting out stroboscopic blinking, which our peripheral vision cannot ignore, to attract our attention.

These are small things, but even potentially important information is of low quality. Last week Hawaiian officials sent out a warning of nuclear attack by mistake, and the main reaction was to blame President Trump, as if to say that should we ever be attacked, Hawaiians will all go Jane Fonda on us.

I would have ignored it: every time I turn on my cell phone, I get the same bunch of old amber alerts and and six-month-old flood warnings, even though I'm nowhere near a flood area. To me, they're just more fake news.

Atomic bomb explosion
Two-factor authentication sends a confirmation of the sender's identity through a separate channel

But it points out something about two-factor authentication, or 2FA, that I hadn't consid­ered. If we get an emergency message on our cell phones telling us how to evacuate, how do we know it's really from the government? Shouldn't we be demanding that the government submit to 2FA and if so, how would that work?

In the case of a nuclear armageddon, it's obvious that the sender of the message, or someone, will indeed be using a secondary means of contacting you. If you notice, for instance, a blinding white flash and an image of your skeleton being burned into the wall behind you, you can be confident that the message was probably authentic.

But sometimes it's not so easy. What if you got a message telling you your grandmother died? You'd call Grams to check—but how could she be sure it's really you? Maybe she should require you to authenticate yourself with a five-digit code.

This might sound silly, but it tells us the real reason people resist 2FA. There's always some excuse, but it's really just a way of rubbing our noses in the fact that corporate IT has control of access to information that we need, and we have to beg for it like little starving puppies.

2FA is a response to low-quality information, but it makes email so inconvenient that I no longer bother to check it at home. My TV (fake news) and radio (commercials) stay off most of the time as well. As for regular mail, I clean out the junk mail every few weeks or so. My cell phone, which I have to carry around, rings constantly. Blocking all the fake telemarketer numbers is so clumsy that I usually keep it turned off.

The common thread is that the quality of information of all types is deteriorating. One by one, our means of conveying information are being corrupted. Spam and 2FA are killing email; fake news is killing newspapers and TV; corporate censorship is killing what little truth remains on the Internet. Modern technology no longer brings people together. At least in my corner of the world, it's isolating them more than ever.

We are an information-dependent species, unique in our need for what Gazzaley and Rosen in The Distracted Mind call information foraging. If we can't get good quality information, we become stressed and insecure. What we're experiencing today is not rapid change. Far from it. What we're experiencing is a collapse of the information ecosystem, and it's having a big effect on our well-being.

jan 21 2018, 4:46 am

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