when exponential information and finite minds meet


“At the end of the year 1492 most men in western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future.”

Samuel Eliot Morison


“Truth is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.”

John von Neumann


“Technology no longer serves as a tool to improve human life, but is a prostitute to the drive for profits. Greed drives technology as businesses compete to develop new technologies in order to generate more profits.”

Dorothee Soelle


While Marshall McLuhan tried to tell us how technology would shape us, it was Toffler who pointed out that technology was going to be the tool which would push our cognitive limits. In Future Shock predicted that environmental overstimulation would not only impact our physical and social worlds, but also our psyche. I would, and will, argue one of the consequences of this  overstimulation is doom and gloom (dystopian feelings).

Which leads me to say we should be talking more about the asymmetry between technology and the human brain particularly in reference to our overall sense of doom and gloom.

To be fair. People have been consistently gloomy about the present and the future since the dawn of time. That said. I would argue the present, say the 2020’s version, is a bit different and maybe a little more uncomfortable. It’s a bit more uncomfortable because we are constantly being bombarded with either dystopian imagery or fragments of harbingers of doom narratives are tossed at us. I do point my finger at technology and social media. The invention of the computer, AI, and, consequently, the worldwide web marked the end of a shitload of familiar, comfortable, features in everyone’s life – whether it was perceptions or reality. It was at that point where, Jurgen Moltmann said “we are setting developments afoot that are getting out of control. We are making free decisions through which we lose our own freedom. If the decisions are final, irrevocable, and unrepeatable, then we are not dealing with experiments anymore. This is a point of no return: all or nothing.”  In other words, technology began reshaping mindsets, attitudes and beliefs (whether we liked it or not).

The wierdish thing about it is as technology becomes more ubiquitous, we begin to use it in what I would call ‘symmetrical sounding narratives” (craft neat stories easy to grasp) which are actually asymmetrical in consequences. Globalization is a perfect example of this. If globalization sounds inevitable, it then suggests technology will somehow determine our future, i.e., worldwide web makes globalization inevitable. It’s a nice neat story, if not exactly true. Let me be clear what I mean. This does not mean technology somehow progresses on its own in a vague process over which humans have no control. Technology does not create itself and humans participate in the decision making, and crafting, what technologies are developed. I say that because the idea technology is equitable and consequences are symmetrical, similar to the mythical ‘invisible hand of economics’, is fairly absurd, therefore, believing the idea that technology itself is moving humanity forward in an inevitable process is fairly absurd. I would suggest giving technology the power to determine the future of society not only ignores human responsibility in forming and shaping technology, but also ignores the limits of the human minds. I would also suggest that the nagging narrative that technology IS determining our future only increases a sense of doom and gloom.

Which leads me to suggest technology has impacted by not only its ubiquitous nature, breadth and depth of usage/connectivity, but also by its inherent exponential nature.

Marshall McLuhan pointed out technology has created impact as a medium and a message/messenger. It has shaped us, but by nature, technology is not additive, can be multiplicative, but arcs toward exponential. And therein lies the subcurrent issue – exponential against finite (Azeem Azhar has authored a fabulous book on this topic: The Exponential Age).

Generally speaking exponential growth rates cause serious problems. In fact, in business, exponential growth cannot be sustained, let alone maintained, for any meaningful length of time. Sure. Some technology companies have navigated this (under the guise of ‘scale’), but at any time humans or real resources are involved (not technology feeding on itself) exponential growth will exhaust finite resources.

Now. It is true technology positively affected many aspects of the existing working world offering ways to eliminate some of the never-ending grind of labor and create the possibilities of a thriving connectivity of workers, but it also, simultaneously, empowered a small class of people to inordinately benefit. While technology became ubiquitous, its effects were not. Technology offered us possibilities and then took them away from many of us almost immediately. I would love to say technology has transformed society, but it really hasn’t. The embedded aspects of traditional society, and business operating principles, remain and elements have been amplified and other elements have been tamped down. And while it would be easy to suggest society and business is fundamentally shaped by information (usually transferred through stories and narratives) the truth is that our reality is just small amounts of information, drawn from an almost infinite pool of information, plodding along the progress highway. Simplistically, the world invented on-demand information and brains are wired with land line technology. What this means is that an information/knowledge revolution should have occurred, but it didn’t. And maybe this is where we need to be a bit harsher on, well, us – humans. The explosion of information should have expanded the minds and mindsets and critical thought of humankind, instead it ran face first into a humankind incapable of using the information. As a consequence, the small minds gathered up the portion of the big information that (a) they were capable of absorbing and (b) they wanted to absorb (it appealed to what they already thought). What I will suggest is that whether we recognize our failings as humans or not, we feel the consequences of our failings in terms of doom and gloom feelings.

“Because of the digital revolution, our lives are being transformed by three grand bargains. The intellectual bargain: we have more knowledge, but less capacity to concentrate and focus. The social bargain: we are much more available, but much less attentive. The emotional bargain: we are much more connected, but much less empathetic. When we trade away skills for power, attention for availability, empathy for connectivity, and quality for quantity of relationships, we sign up to a Faustian pact that we do not even know exists – one that gives us more control over the outside world, but less control over our inner world.”

Our Technology Sickness

What I will suggest is that computer technology actually gave us some idea of the scale and sheer magnitude of the information universe.

You do not need a degree in math to estimate how many books/printed items people had typically read in the past to know it is significantly, maybe even exponentially, less than what the computer technology information blizzard drops on us. We got information at scale. The brain isn’t built to accommodate this blizzard of information. This is not to suggest people are stupid, just that even the most normal, critical thinking human being, has to choose what to ‘experience’ in the infinite pool of information computer technology offers. For example. Think about print. The way we grasped the magnitude of information before was maybe the Sunday New York Times newspaper (who could work their way through that?) or maybe the library. It was graspable knowable, i.e., there is information and I can’t absorb it all, but I can selectively choose what I can, or want, to assimilate. Computer technology put an infinite sized library with dozens of Sunday NYTs every day in front of everyone. The ability to assimilate didn’t change, but now we couldn’t ignore the sheer magnitude of the information universe – it became real. It would be silly to ignore the truth that most minds are staggered by this new reality. It isn’t that people cannot assimilate information, but the sheer amount bombarding everyone from the totality of the universe is simply too much to assimilate. I state it that way to emphasize this is not one thing to be fixed, but rather the universe needs to be rearranged. I would argue that while not many people may suggest ‘the universe needs to be rearranged’, many people will say there is something wrong with the universe, therefore, there is a sense of doom and gloom.

Which leads me to the future.

We are just now exploring the limits of the mind and what our limits are, or are not, regarding learning and unlearning and reeducation. What we humans are capable of is, well, yet to actually be defined (I certainly do not believe we have found our limits yet). Sure. There are futurists and prognosticators espousing what the future will be, but they are guessing. We have to accept the fact that some of the most far-reaching consequences of technology revolution are next to impossible to foresee at the moment – or even in the near future. Many of the features that may appear inconsequential in today’s world could have drastic implications, and consequences, long term. That said. Once again, the future isn’t technology, but humans. Computer technology represents a level of power which is hard to not want to wield at some point – for good or bad. Combine that with the fact some people will simply be better at tapping into the infinite information world with highly qualified finite brains. This is where it all gets a bit tricky (but quite human in nature). The best thinking, developed for the best of the world, will fall into the laps of someone who can use it in a ‘power’ fashion. I explain all of that because, once again, people are not stupid. They may not know the mechanics of how technology power is wielded, but they do know the information universe is too fast for their minds and they seek to wield some power of their own. How? By NOT traveling the infinite information universe, but rather seeking to find a planet they can plop their mind on and know as much as anyone on that particular planet – all the other planets be damned.

  • ** note: part of the problem with the information universe is it is too easy to actually create an alternative universe planet for someone people to plop their minds down on and inhabit).

“Thus the difficulty is not just that nonlinear problems are more difficult to solve. Nor does it reflect our lack of cleverness in finding solutions. The problem does not lie in limitations to our technical and intellectual capabilities, but rather in the characteristic properties of the solutions themselves.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a sense of doom and gloom is only natural if (a) people are wielding infinite power seemingly beyond our own control and (b) if we look around and see people living on different planets within our own planetary society.

But let me end on a hopeful note.

While human minds are finite, the world’s resources are finite, and, for the most part, our skills are finite, we are nowhere close to tapping into the full potential of any and all those things.

While the education system has been incredibly effective in the past, its biggest shortcoming is it truly only develops an insignificant fraction of the abilities of almost every person. The objective should be to optimize each person’s potential and abilities and discover how ‘full’ it can become when fully tapped. In other words, expand our finiteness to limits we can only envision.

The world’s resources are finite, but we are nowhere close to untapping the true potential of all our resources – to date we have extracted & exploited resources and in the future, we should be seeking to expand existing resources as well as rejuvenate that which we use (this includes minds).

To be fair, technology is also attempting to help. There is an increasing amount of new technology that could help us contextualize all the information coming in. For example, Are.na is an online platform for bookmarking items you find online and making connections across them. Roam Research is a similar platform, a notetaking app allowing complex interlinking between pieces of content/information.

I would suggest, societally, it would be beneficial if these types of technologies become a standard for everyone. I would even suggest that these types of technologies should be embedded into social media platforms. My point on technology here is that there are people attempting to craft solutions to the issues technology begets. I would suggest while that is a hopeful thought, it is within this relationship that many people feel gloomy about the future because while I believe we all know there is no ‘going back’ (to whatever you envision ‘back’ is) we also do not know what the future will be and the present feels a bit overwhelming. Anyway. Technology is here and, as Toffler said, the great growling engine of change (technology) will continue to growl on. But. Humans and humanity will also growl on. Ponder.

Written by Bruce