Side-effect of information revolution

Ease of processing, storage, presentation and communication of information seems to have unlocked human creativity like nothing before it. Provided current civilization is able to sustain the information revolution, there could be a paradoxical side-effect lurking somewhere.

Imagine that current pace of information gathering, systematization and disbursal continues for a few centuries, till the farthest from technology human groups also have their culture, history and life digitized and documented. Till that point, I am sure current gush of creativity and digitization will go hand in hand.

However, the rub will come when the past is almost covered. Will there be more ideas? We don’t know the answer!

Just compare physics and its younger friend, biology. How many more layers of ignorance is yet to unfold in each? Physics is way more saturated in ideas than biology. Now, give a few centuries of undisturbed (and probably accelerated) information management to biology. Then? Just look at inorganic chemistry. There was an explosion in the beginning and then it was almost resolved!

In arts, situation is a bit more interesting. Just how many stories, how many recipes, how many shirt designs, just how many melodies are conceivable? Possibly infinite. However, how many of them are *discernibly* different?

This means, after a few centuries, making a masterpiece of art or a major breakthrough in science will be

  1. Exponentially difficult as time passes and/or
  2. Exponentially expensive as time passes and/or
  3. Exponentially difficult to discern in arts or use a scientific breakthrough as a technology

Essentially, fruits may be hanging so high, it may be uneconomical to pluck them.


9 comments on “Side-effect of information revolution

  1. Yash says:

    Your musing is reminiscent of that of Lord Kelvin who allegedly remarked towards the end of the 19th century, before Quantum Physics and Relativity took the stage, that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now”.

    You also think along the lines of Stephen Hawking who looked at the number of journal/conf publications that were submitted every, say, ten years during the 19th century. He saw an exponential growth in the numbers. He concluded, in one of the books that he has written, I forget which one, that soon a day will come that any new technical work will be lost in the millions of others that are produced at the same time. No one will have time to read and keep himself or herself abreast of the bleeding edge of the research because it would be swarming with sheer chaos and hopelessly overcrowded. His depressing observation is similar also to his belief that soon a day will come when the entire land surface of the earth will be full of people standing shoulder to shoulder and that lucky will be the person who wins the lottery to go to the moon or the mars.

    On the other hand, consider the following. This is from Steven Pinker (search the web).

    The young John Stuart Mill was alarmed to discover that the finite number of musical notes, together with the maximum practical length of a musical piece, meant that the world would soon run out of melodies. At the time he sank into this melancholy, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky had not yet been born, to say nothing of the entire genres of ragtime, jazz, Broadway musicals, electric blues, country and western, rock and roll, samba, reggae, and punk. We are unlikely to have a melody shortage anytime soon because music is combinatorial: if each note of a melody can be selected from, say, eight notes on average, there are 64 pairs of notes, 512 motifs of three notes, 4,096 phrases of four notes, and so on, multiplying out to trillions and trillions of musical pieces.

    Estimates of the number of sentences that an ordinary person is able to produce are breath-taking. If a speaker is interrupted at a random point in a sentence, there are on average about ten different words that can be inserted at that point to continue the sentence in a grammatically and meaningfully correct way. Let’s assume that a person is capable of producing sentences that are 20 words long. Therefore the number of sentences that a person can generate in principle is power(10,20). This is close to the age of universe in milliseconds….

    Also consider David MacKay’s observation that the number of distinct files of a meager 1 kilobit size ( power(2,1024) ) is greater than the age of universe in picoseconds by a factor of power(10,280), and the number of electrons in entire universe by a factor of power(10,230), give or take a few powers of tens).

    Read also Godel, Escher, Bach by Hofstadtler. The topic that you raise is his obsession. His general inclination, however, is more in line with Pinker than Kelvin or Hawking’s.

    I don’t know about Hawking’s prediction regarding the impending mad rush to the mars but I put my chips on the view that the Mother Nature has kept the door of creativity next door to the Georg Cantor’s garden of infinity (a madness as judged by Kronecker but a paradise that no one shall expel us from, in the words of David Hilbert), which is not the infinity of natural numbers but the infinity of infinities as represented by his series of aleph numbers.

  2. bhushit says:

    Well said, Yash.
    Did you consider that I don’t say “there will be nothing left”?
    I am saying it will be increasingly uneconomical to generate *or discern* new things *after current wave digitization and categorization of knowledge subsides*.

    If all the achievements of a civilization are captured exactly, aesthetics of life will be beyond a “common man’s” grasp.

    The key difference you point out is that such a restriction is limited to combinatorial knowledge and not a catanating (language like, hence Godel) knowledge. That is why biology might continue to prosper but inorganic chemistry may saturate.

    Take an example.
    Recipes: My mother’s grandmother’s recipe book has eight types of “churma” based “laaDu”. One of My Tamil friends can’t tell the difference between churma laaDu and choTiyaa laaDu! His grandmother used to make 64 types of Sambar – and I can’t differentiate between two. It required so many years in South India for me to discern between tomato rice and tamarind rice. The frontier of taste was difficult to cross.

    Take yet another example.
    Music: As an Indian listener, it is difficult for me to distinguish two pieces of hard metal rock (or gamelan). The reciprocal is also true. To a Western listener, it may be difficult to distinguish between Raaga’s Todi and Jog. If number of raaga’s continue to explode, at a time, even Indian listener need to be trained to differentiate and discern between finer shades (like between Surdasi Malhar and Miyaan ki Malhaar).

    Take yet another example.
    Urdu literature: “jo main aisaa jaanatee, preet kiye dukh hoye, nagar DhinDhoraa peeTatee, preet na kariyo koye!” is one of the first Urdu creation, still enjoyed by my sons. From there it went to Meer and Daa’d and Ghalib – “kuchh na hotaa to khudaa thaa, kuchh na hotaa to khudaa hotaa/miTaayaa mujh ko hone ne, na hotaa main to kyaa hotaa?”. Just in two-three hundred years, need for innovation in a language drove sophistication of expression beyond a common man’s grasp. Are ghazals written now? Yes. But the frontier is pushed in a direction only Ph.D. in Urdu literature can enjoy.

    Take yet another example:
    Physics: I can’t understand tensor analysis – and hence theory of relativity. Even after during my masters in technology course in Electrical Engineering, they never taught special theory of relativity. It was “not needed”. It slid a step farther than Maxwell’s equations from “applications” (discerning problem). I don’t say there will be no physics beyond relativity. I say it will be far high-hanging fruit.

    What do you say?

  3. Yash says:

    Okay, I now got your point. There is a subtle difference between how I construed your post and the actual intent you wanted to convey. Fortunately the difference was neither too subtle (e.g., between the churma laadu and kala laadu), nor was it too big of a hurdle to climb for me (e.g., tensor or abstract algebra) 🙂

    Take the module theory of the brain. According to it, the brain has modules that are sometimes active and otherwise dormant. There are certain special modules that are available only at the young age only to the children. Use’em or lose’em. Australians, only them and not the others, know how to speak the authentic australian accent and tell apart the true aussie accent from the fake. This because only the child australian gets to actively use the accent module, the others in their childhood don’t. Meryl Streep once played a role as an australian. Of all non-australians living on this planet, if there is one person who could have solved the challenge of speaking in the australian accent, it would be Ms. Streep. All the non-australians who watched the movie said her australian speaking was fantastic. All the austrialian movie-watchers opined she was pathetic.

    Your first two examples would be answered by the module theory of the brain. Therefore, they may be reduced to a weakened, if any, support to your thesis.

    Your last two examples fall under the utility theory of brain. Sort of like Darwin’s arguments on the survival of the fittest (as measured against a set of utility metrics). If there is a beautiful theory or creation or idea that is highly useful in day to day life, the mass of the people will soon flock to it. There will be experts and teachers who will simplify the theory and make it reachable in a few steps. Theory of relativity may a theory that is beautiful but not highly useful in day to day life. If it was, the number of people who understand it today would have been much greater. Tensor analysis would be taught in the tenth grade and by the time of high school graduation, the student would be well versed in Einstein’s ideas.

    I don’t think the room of creativity will ever run out of creative items and its rewards. I don’t think a truly creative idea will ever eventually be of a kind that is way too difficult for an average human brain to grasp.

    Thanks, this is a tantalizing thought from you, as always. Looks like I am on one side of the fence and you are on the other. Regardless of who is right (there is no way to know), either answer is a spine-tingling vichaar (sort of like what Carl Sagan said about the two possible answers to the question of whether there is an extra-terrestrial life).

    • bhushit says:

      A hole in your argument for teaching tensors in lower grades proves my point right away.
      AFAIK, tensors are multidimensional vectors themselves and useful in describing non-homogenous vector space. Under such a construct, even humble gradient becomes a 3*3 matrix.
      So, in order to teach tensors in tenth grade, you need to teach vector analysis in ninth, matrix (and probably complex analysis) in eighth, analysis (and probably complex numbers) in seventh, continuum and limits in sixth, functions in fifth.

      Now focus on my older son, who is an original thinker. He is in sixth grade. He could qualify as a “gifted child” had he been studying in the US. Not a genius, not an “average” – somewhere in-between.
      He is not very clear about the difference between what we’d call “homeomorphism” and “isomorphism”. He is already a year behind as per your timetable 🙂
      See the point? The sophistication will not fit!

      Then turn it around and think about longer studies. The only catch is, it will run into biological clock of fertility! Will any girl of 25 date a man of her age who might earn his tenure after 15 years from their date?

      That is where economics of innovation might go wrong.

      In this context, you might like this posting in Gujarati:

  4. Yash says:

    On a different topic, would love to hear your thoughts about the following question.

    Is the consciousness an aspect of the nature that had no precursor prior the emergence of the life or is it a feature of the nature that was always present. from the book War of the Worldviews: Science versus Spirituality.

  5. Yash says:

    Yes, I fully defer to your point about the difficulty of conveying the concepts of advanced mathematics to [a child].

    In fact, you could place in the bracket many adults, especially including me :), and you will make your point equally emphatically

    Any sufficiently rich math concept is taught by the teachers and learnt by the students in several layers of falsehoods. The n-th layer of description gives the student an idea that does not include, or sometimes is in conflict with, the (n+1)th level of truth. Why the incremental, often misleading, approach? Two reasons; (i) no one, whether it’s the child prodigy bhatrijo of mine or a Nobel laurete, can look at N-th level of truth and say “oh, this is so obvious to me” with no prior introduction to the lower simpler ladders of the staircase; and (ii) each layer of complexity makes the student aware of the pointer, that exists in his or her mind, for exploring the next level of details. If the student follows the ingrained pointer, the next level of truth is revealed to him along with the pointer to yet another level of the truth. The art of a good teacher (read here Umraniya sir) lies in (i) simplifying the concept stair and (ii) igniting the interest in the student and making her feel “I can climb this mountain”.

    My contention, contrary to yours, is that the human mind will never face a situation where all the beautiful and high utility staircases are either already explored or prohibitively hard to explore. There will be explorers who will keep on identifying new staircases, and teachers who will convey those to the interested in steps (i) and (ii).

    If the staircase to the relativity were very important to in the day to day life, that if those who graduate the high-school with the major in relativity were to be “set for the life”, strove after by the employers like the IIM graudates today are, my belief is that the essential concepts of that branch of mathematics and physics would be conveyed by the tenth to twelfth grade. New methods that simplify these concepts would be invented and would replace the currently available knowledge base.

    I read the great article that the prodigy cousin of mine wrote at a young age. There, however, one point that he makes goes towards supporting my belief.

    આ વિસ્ફોટને પરિણામે સાધનો, તર્કો – અરે જાહેરાતો સુધ્ધાં એટલાં જટિલ બન્યાં છે અને બનતાં જાય છે કે વાત ન પૂછો! કોઈ અધિક વયની વ્યક્તિ પોતાનાં VCR, ટેલિફ઼ોન મોડેમ કે કેમેરા વાપરતાં કેટલી ડરે છે તે તો તમે જોયું હશે. માત્ર ભારતમાં જ નહીં, સમસ્ત વિશ્વમાં આ આપદા છે. છતાં વિજ્ઞાન અને તાંત્રિકી આગળ વધે જ જાય છે.

    Today, however, iPhone and its smart relatives have been simplified enough so that people no longer are afraid of the vaigyanic tantro, but instead are in love with them.

  6. Yash says:


    Since I see that you have been thinking about this for long (at least since the DDIT days if not before), here is one more input from me that you might be interested in.

    I am sure you know the communication theoretic concept of Entropy that Claude Shannon of Bell Labs developed back in late 1940’s. Subsequent to his ground-breaking work, Kolmogorov (the famous Russian mathematician, who developed, among many other things, the now-famous and widely-taught axiomatic view of the theory of probabilty, and who was so impressed by Shannon’s theory that he said that the probability theory should be learnt only after first learning Shannon’s Entropy theory) developed the computer science counterpart to Shannon’s Entropy.

    Kolmogorov’s work, which was independently also done by Chaitin in U.S., became the foundation of the complexity theory. The brilliant physicist turned computer scientist Steven Wolfram has devoted a major chunk of his research on investigating the ramifications of the complexity theory.

    The basic premise of both Shannon’s entropy concept and Kolmogorov-Chaitin complexity function is simple. Given an arbitrary string (or a pattern, symbolic representation, etc.), what is the length of the minimum description that can be used, by some pre-defined algorithmic recipe, to reproduce that string. For example, if you look at the infinite number of digits in decimal expansion of PI, and IF you know that these digits are the result of dividing 22 by 7, you can compress that entire infinite digital stream by just three symbols 22, /, 7; give these three symbols as an input to any computer and you’re done.

    Shannon called this the compressibility of the string. Kolmogorov went one step further and called this the “essence” of the string.

    Ramifications of this concept are anything but simple. One view (held by, I think, Wolfram) is that everything in the world, all the complexity that is out there, is the result of some short length strings fed to sufficiently complicated algorithmic processor. The other view (held by Chaitin) is that if you think the patterns that you see and feel and recognize and understand is all that is “out there”, think otherwise because you aint seen nothin yet.

    • bhushit says:

      I understand this comment completely.
      The gap is, where do you see so much relation between the point of my posting (low-hanging-ness) and information theory?
      I thought statistical hardness or Pareto principle.
      * 80% of knowledge will require 20% of effort (that is 12,000 or so years) and rest 20% may take 80% of time (that is 50,000 years)
      * 80% of usefulness or tangibility will be around 20% of knowledge. For the rest 80%, one may require too specialized a knowledge, gaining which may take longer than one’s lifespan
      … and things like that.

      It is interesting that with less knowledge I rush to write and with more knowledge and understanding, you are content commenting 🙂

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