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We’re Drowning In Low-quality Information

You can be the hero who rescues the world from certain doom. A real hero: someone who tackles a critical problem and, against the odds, wins. To become this hero you’ll have to go against the grain, which will be harder than choosing the green salad while your friends order fries.

Humanity is facing dozens of large-scale, entrenched problems: pollution, climate change, dormant nuclear arsenals, mass extinction, governments running amok, and more. One is easily overwhelmed by the bleakness of it all, so we tend to tune it out. We need a hero.

The way I see it, there’s a single core problem tying all of the others together and it’s a problem you (yes you) can help solve. Our core problem is that we are up to our eyeballs in low-quality information. If we each had a tool that safely dialed up the quality of our information diet, we’d gain the power to solve any of our problems.

We’re drowning in the kind of information that suffocates and drains our power, the kind that creates new problems while maintaining the old. Modern technology is fine and wonderful in theory, but it seems to have become primarily an entertainment and influence channel. For a few of us screen time means progress toward personal goals, but for most people it means being left behind.

Mostly we’re browsing the web, watching video, scrolling social media, and playing games. Despite clear gains in the convenience of e-commerce, access to online health research, and rich communication, we each remain largely powerless and subdued by an undercurrent of hopelessness.

Each of us desperately needs a life-ring, whether it feels that way or not.

The form of this “life-ring” is a tool that amplifies our power instead of dampening it, becoming a source of the energy, opportunity, and choice we crave. I’ll call this tool PowerUp for now because, well, it powers you up. It powers you toward your own goals and nobody else’s.

Heroes, both ancient and new, have tools like this. Thor has Mjölnir, King Arthur had Excalibur, and the US Air Force has the F-22 Raptor. Each of those tools amplifies power, but with the key addition that only Thor may lift Mjölnir, or Arthur wield Excalibur, or the USAF fly their Raptor. When your powerful tool can be turned against you, it’s less appealing.

The Basics

PowerUp, the type of tool we need, has two core properties:

  1. Amplifies your power
  2. Cannot be used against you

What it is, and what it isn’t

Our power is amplified when we are fueled by high quality information rather than the smelly low quality stuff most of us are immersed in. The people running corporations and intelligence agencies have a tight grasp on this relationship between good information and power, and it applies the same to every person. With high-quality fuel, we can power up mountains to achieve our goals, protect our interests, and transform our dreams into reality. With low-quality fuel, we get nowhere. We’re vulnerable spectators, not even in the race.

So PowerUp, our prospective tool, must help us discover, protect, and make use of high quality information. And I’m not talking about a search engine like Google with its insatiable appetite or a social network like Facebook that claims to keep us connected but mostly slurps up information about us. They are tools owned and wielded by others; we have no control over them. I’m also not talking about an app on your precious smartphone, because that combination is so easily used against you. Not something like Wikipedia or Podcasts either, because everyone has access to those. Nor, for that matter, any device or software that depends on the Internet. PowerUp must not depend on these types of technologies for its core function, although it can make careful use of them. If the solution to our problems was “more of the same”, we’d have no need for heroism.

Until we each have this PowerUp tool — the life-ring buoying us out of the water — we will lack the energy to power through our problems, however small and personal or large and global. We need you to be the hero who actively demands this tool rather than waiting for a slick viral video or a nearly-funded KickStarter campaign. Heroes take risks and lead the way. Then, when you get it? Be the hero who wields it with intense purpose.

High quality vs. low quality information

You may still be wondering what I mean by high and low quality information. In general, high quality information is the kind that brings you closer to your goals. You’ll find this information in textbooks and manuals, lectures and training sessions, and through mentors and first-hand experience. Wherever it comes from, the information is closely aligned with reality and it’s easily verified.

We apply this standard in science, where observations must be repeatable, experiments must be reproducible, and theories must make quantified predictions. We’ve carefully documented and cross-referenced hundreds of years of science so anyone can verify it or even try it themselves. We apply this standard in the courtroom; to get a conviction, evidence must meet a high standard of quality. Judges and lawyers do the same with their arguments and judgments. And also in academics: to gain credibility, one must back their published arguments with authoritative citations.

The deeper you can verify the lineage and details of the information, the higher its quality. Much like food quality. Vegetables from your garden and fresh steak from the local butcher? Feels good and tastes good. The more you’ve personally verified and approved of how your ingredients were grown, stored, and your meal prepared, the higher the quality of your food. Food from a factory and wrapped in plastic? Not so good, but handy in a pinch.

And the highest possible quality of information? That’s generated when you take action. When you slam on the brakes while driving, or swing the bat in baseball, or send an email, or literally anything, you have the best possible information about that action. Whatever you choose to do, you are the origin of any information that results. You have both the details and the context (the reason, relations, and plan), and being the origin there’s no lineage to trace. Unfortunately for most of us, we lack the tools and techniques to transform this information into greater personal power. But that’s where PowerUp comes in.

In contrast, low quality information keeps you far away from your goals. It’s the kind that distracts and overstimulates you: advertisements, television, magazines, the news, video games, YouTube, most fiction (and non-fiction for that matter), and the vast majority of what’s on social networks and the Internet in general. It’s fine in moderation — we all need a break — but it’s devastating in excess, like too much carbon dioxide in the air.

A simple card game like Go Fish also illustrates the relationship. If you want to win, you don’t expose your hand or narrate the cards you pick up. That information will be used against you. You protect your hand while paying close attention to everyone else’s, remembering as much as you can. A good memory is key to using their information against them. Perhaps you’ll tell the occasional lie or toss in a distraction to throw off your opponents, giving them low quality information. Perhaps you’ll prod them for vulnerabilities and then exploit their weaknesses to extract details. Anyway, that’s how me and my sons play. Maybe we’ll try poker next.

Any problem

Our hardest problems demand plenty of the best information. Trying to solve a Millennium Prize problem like Grigori Perelman with the Poincaré conjecture? Best immerse yourself in the work of top mathematicians, stay current, and focus intently. It’s safe to say that Perelman had little room for Candy Crush, and neither will you.

Or maybe you’d rather tackle a global-scale problem like climate change, an aggregate of billions of smaller, easier-to-solve problems. You’ll need buy-in from enough people to generate a tipping point. Each of these people needs a source of high quality information of their own to energize their detachment from easy lifestyles and to fuel their ongoing resolve.

And if you’re facing relatively small problems like becoming fit, getting a date, or getting that promotion? Like any other problem, you’ll need good information on what will work for your situation. It’s all out there somewhere, buried by the mediocre stuff wasting your time and energy.

Information is the fuel needed to solve problems of any size. So PowerUp — the life-ring for humanity — must dial up the quality of information available to each person.

Information and Palm Oil

Indonesia’s forests are burning; tens of thousands of hectares have already been destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. Carbon-dioxide emissions from the fires are as high as 61 megatons per day and, according to Bloomberg, occasionally exceed China’s daily emissions.

Unless we get our carbon-dioxide emissions under control, we risk increasingly chaotic weather patterns: bigger and more frequent storms, drought in some areas while others flood, perhaps even rapidly rising sea levels. These environmental effects could lead to large-scale social upheaval: famine, mass migration, revolt, and war. Enough to make the current Syrian situation, as horrible as it is, look minor.

Palm oil must be in high demand if we’re going through this much trouble to get it. It’s what ramen noodles are fried in. It’s a key ingredient in chocolate, lipstick, ice cream, cookies, laundry detergent, and many other products. Palm oil is everywhere because it’s cheap; its demand mirrors our love for chocolate and our obsession with lipstick.

We might be tempted to label this an economic problem and stop there. After all, if real wages had kept up with inflation, we would each be less price-sensitive and more open to products with less environmental impact. If we were less stressed by our finances, we might look closer at the origin of our purchases. And yet, which alternatives would we choose? Why? Will our next choice be better? Why have we been choosing products with palm oil anyway, aside from price?

We’ve been choosing palm oil and its harmful side-effects because we are immersed in low-quality information. Our future choices won’t improve until the quality of our information improves.

Advertising is low quality information: it’s biased, woefully incomplete, and distracts us from alternatives. The vast majority of our ad-supported content and media is also low quality information: TV news and series, web articles, social media, crowd-ranked content, most search results, and the list goes on. When we connect our demand for branded goods like lipstick, chocolate, laundry detergent, and ice cream to their massive advertising campaigns affordable only by very large corporations driven purely by financial metrics, the problem becomes clear.

But no matter how manipulated we are by advertising and propaganda, the bottom line is that our personal consumption habits are driving palm oil demand. If we each had a source of high quality information — trusted, timely, and personally relevant — our individual behavior would begin to change.

Utility bills and behavior

Each month we have bills to pay: electricity, natural gas, water, fuel, and so on. If we use more, we pay more, and so we try hard to stay within our means. Monthly bills offer high quality information that we already use to regulate our behavior.

What if we also had a tool to track our palm oil usage in detail? To track such detail, we would need a way to easily record exactly what we buy. This information is already collected by many businesses but it’s for their use, not for ours. PowerUp would give us a way to easily accumulate that information ourselves rather than depending on the unverifiable behavior and motives of others. We’d only perpetuate our problems if PowerUp ended up shoveling even more of our information into the furnace of Big Data.

Each product we buy has a set of ingredients or raw materials and a tightly controlled production process (although we may have to dig to discover the details). Each product, as well as each of its ingredients, has an origin story, a delivery method, a storage and sales cost, and a disposal cost. While we won’t have complete detail at the beginning, there’s plenty of value in starting with what we know and growing from there.

Most importantly, we must see that our palm oil number rises when we use more of it and lowers when we use less, like a utility bill. We might even choose to share our palm-oil number with our friends, putting social networking to good use. Knowing our palm oil consumption, we might have one fewer chocolate bar or half as much ice cream. A bit like how FitBit’s step tracking helps some people be more active, or how a Kill-a-Watt meter helps others reduce their electricity bill.

Going bigger

The next step is to connect our palm oil consumption to its carbon dioxide emissions and many other effects. Expanding the scope to include deeper effects shines a bright light onto the total impact of our choices. We could see for ourselves, in hard numbers, how our personal choices relate to global consequences. Then we could make real changes rather than the type of change politicians tend to deliver.

Of course, palm oil is only the scapegoat of the hour. What about all of the other damaging ingredients and resources we consume in comfort? Saudi oil, California almonds, rare-earth metals, tuna, coffee, Colombian cocaine, Brazilian hardwood, ivory, meat, high-fructose corn syrup, cheap Chinese gadgets, and so on. Every little thing has costs not reflected by its price, but right now we have no idea what those true costs are and no way to quantify them. Until we gain access to that information, our behavior will not change and our problems — small and large — will remain.

And if you don’t want to sacrifice for the sake of our future generations or the health of our planet? That’s fine, but the same principle applies. Your own ambitions are a series of problems to solve, some of which are very hard. To do well in life you need a reliable flow of high-quality information and a way to apply that information to solving your problems. Instead of linking your actions to global consequences, you’d link them to personal or social consequences. You could then see which actions bring you closer to your goals and which do not.

The Information Is Already Ours

The key is that we each already generate the high quality information we need. We don’t need to ask anyone for it, or pay for it, or scour the Internet for it.

Each of our actions, however small, generates high quality information.

But we need a tool to collect, protect, and use it for ourselves. A tool that’s much more effective than the modern distracted mind. A tool that restores our competitiveness and cannot be used against us.

Thousands of technology companies understand the value of the information our actions generate. Companies like Google, Facebook, and even Microsoft are spending billions of dollars to capture and analyze our digital behavior and link it to who-knows-what-else for the sake of revenue. All while strengthening their position year by year.

To be the hero we need, it’s on you to demand a tool like PowerUp. Really demand it. If you’re feeling frisky, ask one of your creative friends why it’s not their side (or main) project. Or try to build it yourself. But at least ponder what this tool might look like and how it might work. Talk to people, ask around for people already working along these lines, and vote with your wallet when the time comes. If you can activate your wallet for daily Starbucks, iTunes, KickStarter gadgets, or Steam games, you can also do it to save us all from doom.

But if you’re not ready for such heroism, feel free to follow along while I lay it all out. Rest assured that privacy is front and center. Without privacy we simply cannot know when or how someone will sap our power by using our information against us.