18. Our private information war: The blurred line between ignorance and informed

In my day job, helping businesses to navigate the often murky waters and choppy seas of communicating and marketing on the Internet, I pay close attention to a gentleman called Avinash Kaushik.

He’s worked for Google for a long time and he writes about what he calls the “intersect between Digital Marketing and Data Analytics”. You might be thinking you need to be a particular type of nerd to find any of that interesting, and you’re probably right.

But there’s something he keeps returning to, that is both the core and the cornerstone of everything he does, which makes him compelling (for me, at least, and for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of other readers around the world).

He talks about the disconnect between information and interpretation in the field of marketing (the activities businesses invest and engage in to try to succeed) and analytics (the metrics that might tell whether those activities have worked).

And a recurring theme in his work can possibly be boiled down to this:

There is a vast amount of information but there is precious little valuable interpretation of that information.

One thing that has come into sharp relief over the first 12 months of the pandemic, no matter where you are in the world, is the unprecedented availability of information, and the confusion around what that information means.

In the earliest days, in January and February 2020, when the news trickled through of a new virus in a province in China, we saw videos of the Chinese authorities erecting specialist hospitals in a matter of days, and videos of eerie deserted streets in the city of Wuhan where people were strictly quarantined into their homes.

This developing news was one type of information, and we relied on both external and internal factors to interpret it.

The external factors include the news media, for sure, who we have relied on for well over a century to construct a narrative from available information and tell us a story that makes logical sense to our brains. External factors of information interpretation have also always included our own small circle of friends and family: whether it’s a mature discussion around the dinner-table (or barbecue, or campfire), or something as simple as a little idle gossip, our small circles help us interpret the information that comes to us.

Internal factors of interpretation includes how we think and how we feel.

Your brain’s biggest job, of course, is always to keep you alive. Identifying dangers, and being afraid of them, is perhaps the oldest and most established task that sits as a minute-by-minute to-do list in your brain.

Neuroscientists have in recent decades discovered so much about the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped slice deep in our brain, which is believed to be the emotional heart of the brain. When we feel fear or love, or fury or lust, the amygdala seems always to be involved, taking inputs from available information, and processing them. It’s safe to say the amygdala in all of us has been working overtime this past year or more.

As we interpret information that comes at us, about a new virus and potentially fatal illness that seems to be as easily transmissible as any virus has ever been, we can be forgiven for feeling some level of fear as the internal checks deep in our brains do their thing.

The availability of information: a new challenge for humanity

While our understanding of these things is still very new, all of these ingredients in the way we live and behave have been inside us for as long as humans have been humans.

What is new and explosive, though, is how the Internet has revolutionised the information flow.

In the past, we suspected the world was complex, but we had very little information about that complexity, and so we did our thing — we farmed, or cooked, or chatted with friends, or went about our businesses, happily unaware, maybe even blissfully ignorant, of most of the complexity about the world around us.

We relied on institutions like governments and media and courts of law to seek out and receive the information they needed, and to present us an interpretation of that information that made some sense to us.

What has happened with the onset of the Internet, though, is comparable to finding one’s way to Oz, and looking behind the green silk curtain and seeing that the “great and powerful Wizard of Oz” is a little old man with a microphone and a smoke machine.

With the new knowledge that the narratives being constructed, by media and by governments, are at best incomplete or ill-informed, and at worst willfully untrue and occasionally corrupt and fraudulent, what are we to do?

We have access to more information than we know what to do with. From the eternal rabbit hole that is OurWorldInData, to daily updates of case numbers and hospitalizations and deaths, to vaccine efficacy, information about the coronavirus and its effects is available all around us. Once we start the process of information excavation, we discover that it never ends with everything neatly tied up in a bow.

The difficulty lies in interpreting the information in a way that makes sense to us. In knowing what to believe in and trust, what to ignore and disregard, what to protest against.

It is a new challenge for humanity, and almost nothing in the history of our species prepares us for it.

We can go any number of ways. The spectrum runs from total ignorance on one side to total information on the other.

Neither extreme is especially appealing.

The best and safest thing we can do, perhaps, is to approach everything with an open, learning, questioning mind.

Questions that come from a place of humility — “I don’t know, and I want to learn” — have been central to every step of progress, for us as a species and for each of us as individuals.

We ask a question. We receive information. We interpret that information. We step forward into that interpretation. Then we ask another question, and the cycle endlessly repeats.

One of the biggest dangers to us all is the shutting down of questioning.

If there’s a blurred line between being ignorant and well-informed, there appears now to be a very fine line between asking questions and being accused of harbouring conspiracy theories.

Blindly following rules and orders — that’s the sort of thing innocent, well-meaning people did in 1930s Germany, or in the gulags of the 1950s Soviet Union.

Our right to question is core to our being. Asking better questions gives us better information.

Rights come with responsibilities, always. Out of the right to question, the responsibility that comes with it is to interpret the information we receive in way that is useful and productive.

It’s no easy task, and we might find many questions unanswered or unanswerable.

But it’s a task that must be done.

As the exposed Wizard of Oz says, “I’m a good man, but a terrible wizard.”

By asking questions openly and humbly, we stop seeking reassurance from wizards that don’t exist.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.