Life & Science

Coping with Information Complexity

Information overload rect

Ignorance and Language as Mechanisms for Coping with Information Complexity - by Konstantinos Trantopoulos

Life as we know it is increasingly dependent on an intricate web of digital networks, a global emerging nervous system embedded in our lives. Web searching and online social platforms combined with the advances in communication technologies enhance the collection and distribution of massive amounts of information—the necessary catalyst to develop our knowledge system enabling us to generate insights, explain how things work, build inferences, or make judgments. As a consequence, information as well as knowledge aggregation has developed as one of the most important sources of competitiveness for individuals and organizations within modern societies. Within this mindset, the role of ignorance has generally received little attention and has broadly been associated with negative connotations. But could it be that ignorance has also a positive side? And how should our language be redefined in this hyper-connected era, which encompasses these two competing views?

To shed light on the role that ignorance plays in the inextricably intertwined physical, digital and social worlds that we inhabit, we should first start by looking at the red queen’s race between our powerful but finite capabilities to process stimuli from the outside world and the increasing pace of information burst being present in our lives. As we run the risk of losing our “sense-making”—the ability to step back and thoroughly process information in order to construct reliable mental maps of the world and act accordingly—ignorance seems to create the necessary delay between stimulus and action, a filter from external noise that allows us to slow down and begin to reflect on our innermost thoughts and feelings. One step further, the calm and quiet that ignorance provides can prove useful for steering attention to unchartered territories, offering a God’s eye view on life, letting the mind puzzle over connections and drawing unexpected links between people, objects and ideas. This mental map which exhibits a rich network structure, underpins the fundamental learning mechanism of individuals—their ability to identify, assimilate, and exploit knowledge from the environment, i.e., develop their absorptive capacity. Today, this process relies heavily on IT-enabled functions but urgently needs to be balanced and revitalized by face-to-face communication, focus on emotions, as well as building trust and mental bridges with peers through human signaling and language, our ultimate weapon for reasoning.

Apart from serving as a tool to communicate, language shapes the way that we understand reality and ourselves. During the historical development of the world, it has always been designed for categorizing knowledge into unrelated and fragmented vertical columns focusing mainly on the in silos identification rather than on the relationships between contexts. However, as we occupy an increasingly complex world that becomes deeply interlinked on multiple dimensions, we need to reconfigure our mindset and relate everything ranging from Art, Science and Technology to Politics, Economics and Religion—to name but a few—on a rather horizontal axis focusing on the interconnectedness between them. Rewiring our pattern of thinking based on this network perspective requires that we avoid constraining our horizons to the current state of knowledge and leave old mental models and some of their core assumptions behind. This different kind of thought should lead to a redesign of language which in turn—as language guides action—will enhance the ability of societies to recognize the value of new knowledge, acquire it, analyze it, interpret and finally transform it into tangible benefits for architecting life in a more sustainable way.

In a rapidly evolving world, this calls for capitalizing on the complexity of online information streams coupled with offline personal experiences, thoughts, actions and emotions. Developing innovative ways to effectively blend and tune these online and offline knowledge sources remains a challenge. Could this enhanced absorptive capability in the form of a unique dazzling mosaic—a continuous personal narrative in analogy to today’s RSS feeds—serve as the skeletal morphology towards a more open, creative, and intelligent humanity? A man-made synthetic utopia may not be natural, but it’s perfectly elegant and real.

Sources of inspiration for this Article:

Cohen and Levinthal (1990), "Absorptive capacity: A new perspective on learning and innovation", Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 35, Issue 1.

Andrea Moro (2008), "The Boundaries Of Babel-The Brain and the Enigma of Impossible Languages", The MIT Press.

"The Global Information Technology Report 2012-Living in a Hyperconnected World", World Economic Forum.

McAfee and Brynjolfsson (2012), "Big Data: The Management Revolution", Harvard Business Review.

ETH Zurich, Chair of Strategic Management & Innovation