All the Things We Cannot See: The Rise of the Information Nexus
On the Information Seekers that Create Society
We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. —Marshall McLuhan
The march of science and technology does not imply growing intellectual complexity in the lives of most people. It often means the opposite. —Thomas Sowell
Above: From crouched Hominids to stooped Homo Technologicus. The more things change, the more they stay the same…
Another week, another collaboration with a brilliant friend: Wesley Braden.
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Astute observers will note that this is not the first time I have featured Wesley’s words in White Noise. Nearly a year ago, he penned a beautiful, devastating piece on his life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:
I’ve said it once—in the above post, no less—and I’ll say it again and again: Wes’ ability to attack complex problems with finesse and grace is a testament to his intellectual firepower, deep curiosity, and penchant for seeking out capital-T truth. As I previously wrote:
In Wes, I see a lot of myself (or, at least who I aspire to be). He is a man of genuine kindness, deep curiosity, and infectious positivity; the type of friend you smile with on the brightest of days and rue alongside on the darkest of nights.
His writing, like mine, comes from a deeply personal place.
When he came to me with the idea to collaborate on a piece about how we consume information and it consumes us in turn, I bit like a helpless fish and fell hook, line, and sinker.
His special gift for sniffing out the what and the why at the intersection of technology and culture—two things that seem to be converging every more rapidly in recent years—led to the following piece.
And so, without further ado, our collective words:
Other than water, air, and food, human beings need both to consume and to share information.
Though seemingly obvious given our current, eponymous age, this yearning goes as far back as Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, even our primordial ancestors.
Indeed, it is hardwired—embedded in how we perceive and process our place in reality.
Gathering information is so pivotal to human existence that the body rewards this behavior with a dopamine hit, much like it does when we eat nutritious food. Indeed, knowledge helped our ancestors find sustenance, avoid predators, build upon the experiences of others, create tools, and much more. Over time, its role became much more metaphysical—evolving into the mechanism by which make meaning of who we are and why we matter.
Put simply, we seek information because it feels good, and it feels good because it helps us navigate our lives.
As I wrote in my piece Curation as a Cure:
I am an information junkie.
From reading myriad newsletters to scribbling countless notes, finishing a book every two weeks to zipping through podcasts at 2x speed, I increase the quantity/quality of my inputs so as to improve my outputs. I love nothing more than burnishing my thinking by grappling with my preconceived notions and rudimentary theses.
I view knowledge as an immense privilege. This reverence for wisdom was inculcated from a very young age. A favorite quote from my late grandfather, John T. Landers, reads: "Education is the lightest burden you will ever carry." This belief has served as my intellectual North Star for as long as I can remember.
I—and humans writ large—do the above not to hoard, but to share information both with those that matter to us and those that might find it helpful.
This behavior gives us—and the information we have gathered—meaning and purpose; it builds trust and affinity between us and another person or group. It resembles a call option on continued cooperation; an exercise in the collective, reciprocal behavior meant to ensure future survival.
If your reading these words is any indication, this dynamic has been highly successful in sustaining human life. Indeed, it serves as the fundamental building block upon which society, culture, and language are each built:
Society is no more than a group of individuals living together.
Why? Both to benefit from greater numbers in case of an outside threat and—more importantly for our purposes—to more easily disseminate useful learnings with one another.
Culture is the compendium of rules that define how to live in a specific way.
Culture arises from the persistent collection of information from one’s surroundings via experiments. How does culture proliferate? By sharing the results of these various tests.
Language is simply a tool we use to share insights with one another.
Though societies, culture, and language constantly change as technology and external factors morph, the role that information-seeking and information-sharing plays has largely remained the same.
That said, the extreme proliferation and reorganization of information in the last thirty years has greatly changed the way that humans relate to this deluge of data and interact with one another societally, culturally, and linguistically.
Ironically, despite information’s increase in quantity and (sometimes) quality, our capacity to perceive and process it is astonishingly limited. Per John M. Coates’ The Hour Between Dog and Wolf:
[O]f this massive flow of information no more than about 40 bits per second actually reaches consciousness. We are, in other words, conscious of only a trivial slice of all the information coming into the brain for processing.
As with attention span, so too with sociological transformation.
Author Bruce Mazlish’s A New Science breaks this concept down elegantly. The book documents the birth of sociology as a discipline, following it from the literary “lamenters” of Rousseau, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Eliot to the early “revolutionary sociologists” of Engels and Marx, to the “scientific sociologists” of Tönnies, Simmel, Durkheim, and Weber.
Mazlish’s thesis is simple: The desire to understand the breakdown of past societal connections—and the impetus to document and describe those taking their place—drove the industrious creativity of these writers, philosophers, and scientists.
The chief issue over which these thinkers obsessed—both fawning and condemning, alike—was the idea of the cash nexus.
Philosopher Thomas Carlyle coined the term, and so describes it best, “Cash Payment has become the sole nexus of man to man!”
With this, he bemoans how a simple exchange of value brokered by cash replaced the ancient societal pillars of traditional community, relational trust, and empathetic generosity.
Though simple in theory, this was tectonic in practice. As almost all value flowed through the exchange of cash, community obligation, bartering, and friendship became far less important. Hiring a stranger with money could now replace asking someone from your community to help for free (in exchange for a future favor).
This fascinating development animated Engels, Marx, Simmel, and Tönnies and so produced what we now call Sociology.
Our Information Age is ushering in a development very similar to that of the cash nexus. We are fast-moving toward an information nexus and we are ignorant as to the first and second-order effects of such a paradigm shift. Ironically, though it is happening right before our eyes, we—individually and societally—remain blind to it.
For nearly all of human history—until the Information Age, that is—humans accumulated skills, facts, perspectives, and more from interpersonal interaction. Though there were books that relayed facts and contained more specialized knowledge, significant friction existed in finding and procuring the right book, learning the right skill, et cetera. More, a great deal of knowledge failed to translate into book format because of the challenges of price and distribution.
Over time videos helped some, but they were seldom indexed or easily searchable.
Oftentimes, querying a person who could easily recall this knowledge was the fastest solution.
People often possessed specialized knowledge due to their life experience, education, self-study, and more.
A plumber knew how to fix a sink because of his/her training and experience.
A teacher could lecture on the Ottoman Empire because he/she had spent time studying dates, events, and regimes.
A doctor could properly diagnose abdominal pain because of his/her learnings at medical school, in residency, and on the job.
You’ve likely done this today with family or friends: simply asking someone to share their knowledge on a given topic (e.g. How old was Tom Cruise in the original Top Gun?) or to connect you with someone who possessed that knowledge (e.g. Do you know anyone who can teach me how to play volleyball like Tom Cruise in the original Top Gun?).
This arrangement has existed for thousands of years.
In the last thirty years, however, the rise of large information brokers like Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia has greatly reduced the role of personal relationship—not to mention human interaction—involved in acquiring or sharing information.
Instead of asking a friend if they know a plumber, today we watch four Youtube videos and blunder along until we fix the issue ourselves.
Instead of calling a friend who loves World War I to learn more about Joseph Joffre, we quickly Google him to figure out the date of his death.
Instead of asking our parents how to best care for a newborn, we conduct a few searches on Amazon and purchase the parenting book with the highest reviews.
Put simply, we no longer connect with one another over information as often.
Instead, we connect with a broker, a hub, a nexus.
Instead of flowing between two people who have some kind of loose relationship with one another, information flows through intermediaries like Google.
An example would look something like this:
Information-holders produce content and insert it into an information nexus like Google, YouTube, or Reddit
e.g. A plumber who knows how to replace a P-trap produces efficient content for DIYers. He/she may be doing this altruistically or perhaps to gain and monetize a following (oh hey, cash nexus!).
Information-seekers then search, browse, and read/watch/consume on demand
e.g. Comparing and contrasting myriad P-trap replacement techniques from plumbers, DIYers, and more.
This is certainly an efficient exchange for both parties. It’s both asynchronous and effectively free (n.b. the information-holder is compensated by advertising revenue in a way that would have been impossible just twenty years ago).
That said, we lose a great deal in this new paradigm. Within it, there is a limited need for the holder or seeker to hold conversation, express emotion, and produce a nascent relationship or connection.
Of course, though the information-seeker can see who created a given piece of content, he/she will likely never have a relationship with this person.
Similarly, the creator might see the YouTube comments of the person watching his/her tutorial, but the information-holder will likely never have a direct conversation with the information-seeker.
Such is the nature of abstraction, leverage, and scale. Just like the cash nexus diminishes human relationship as it pertains to value, the information nexus reduces the surface area of positive, productive, interpersonal interaction—thus eroding trust, affinity, and any semblance of shared meaning.
The cash nexus radically reorganized society by changing who had money, who created value, and how people thought about their work.
The information nexus is radically reorganizing the way our society engages with information, facts, and truth.
Just one example is the widespread distrust of “experts” in favor of anecdotal advice from Aunt Karen on Facebook.
We do not mean to completely romanticize the pre-nexus information reality, of course. We recognize the beauty—and in many ways, clear superiority—of our instantaneous access to information.
However, our acceptance of an information nexus society is too naive, enthusiastic, and shallow. It robs us of the joys of sharing information in tighter, more intimate relationships with one another. After all, feeling is a vital component of the machinery of reason and cooperation.
The cash nexus commodified and sterilized relationships organized between parties (while also, of course, ensuring that supply met demand, among many other benefits).
The information nexus operates in a similar fashion, commodifying information and alienating the producer and consumer of the information from one another.
We are changing and reordering an experience that is pivotal to the human existence. More, we are doing it without really thinking about it.
This cannot be.
Writing, criticism, and analysis concerning the rise of the cash nexus produced some of the greatest social scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries. We hope that this piece prompts similar discussion and so inspires a generation to study the development of this sea change in how we collectively relate, function, and thrive as a society.
Per my about page, White Noise is a work of experimentation. I view it as a sort of thinking aloud, a stress testing of my nascent ideas. Through it, I hope to sharpen my opinions against the whetstone of other people’s feedback, commentary, and input.
If you want to discuss any of the ideas or musings mentioned above or have any books, papers, or links that you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of White Noise, please reach out to me by replying to this email or following me on Twitter.
With sincere gratitude,
Hence this very publication!