Civilization / Culture / Philosophy / Science

Increasing the Bandwidth

File:ESO Very Large Telescope.jpg

An immense amount of information is stored on all the computers of the internet and all the storage devices connected to it. Our internet-based culture developed out of a book-based culture, a few decades ago. In that culture, knowledge was mainly stored in the form of printed books, and some electronic media started to play a role during its last decades. The culture based on printed books emerged from one that was based on hand-written books, and this in turn developed out of a culture that did not have writing at all.[1]

In the earliest cultures, the total information storage capacity of a culture was limited by what a group of a few ten, hundred or maybe thousand people could hold in memory and what they could transmit from one generation to another by teaching.

Likewise, the bandwidth of the interface societies have with reality changed in a similar manner. An early illiterate culture interacts with reality through the senses and actions of the few people belonging to it at any time, so the bandwidth of the flow of information from the world into the culture is quite limited. The limited storage capacity also means that from all the information that flows in (i.e. all the things that happen and are experiences by the members of the society) only a small fraction is retained and made part of what is passed on, the tradition.

As a result, the world-view that such a society can develop and retain is necessarily a relatively simple one. As people of a society based on information storage, we are not very used to memorize a lot of stuff, so we might underestimate the amount of information the tradition of such a culture might contain (see Old Songs and On Epics), but in the end, all the information contained in such a tradition would fill a few books.

The narrow interface with reality would mean that the tradition could contain a lot of stuff that is not “really” true, like, for example, mythological stories. One could think of such a tradition as something comparable to the genetic information of an organism. As long as the organism is surviving, nothing is wrong with its genetic information. Likewise, as long as the content of the tradition helps the community to survive or at least does not stop it from doing so, it is fine. It is tested against reality as a whole, not in its individual parts. The knowledge of earlier cultures typically contains a lot of fictional elements, that are not “true” from our point of view although they often serve a purpose and have a function in the working of the society. In any case, from within the culture it is not possible to distinguish these “fictional” elements from the “real” reality. Doing so requires a culture that itself has a larger information content and a wider interface with reality.

You can view such a world-view as an analytical space, i.e. a limited body of knowledge about a limited section of reality. As long as you stay inside that limited section of the world, the theory might work. However, if the information storage capacity and the information processing capacity of a culture increas, inconsistencies in the theories it holds might become visible. Cultures can basically react to this in two ways: by adapting their views or by refusing to do so (see The World is flat!). Inventing writing and, later, printing set cultures on a path of development they did not foresee and did not intend.

With the invention of writing, printing and finally electronic storage media, the amount of information that could be stored increased enormously with each of these steps. The complexity of societies that could be managed increased as well, and so did the bandwidth of the reality-culture-interface.

Our culture as a whole has a very wide interface with reality, with telescopes, microscopes and many other instruments, with scientific institutions and scientific methods used to increase that bandwidth. However, unlike early cultures, the large amount of information makes it impossible to hold all members of society together inside one single cultural framework. Inside the total culture, subcultures are forming whose bandwidth might even be narrowing, and might be more or less intentionally be restricted, through ideology, denialism, consumerism etc.[2]

The high bandwidth of the reality-culture interface in our scientific culture is only possible on the basis of an industrial civilization like ours. There is reason to believe that this civilization is not going to last (see Civilization and Being Strangled by the Invisible Hand). When it disappears, both the storage capacity and the bandwidth of the culture-reality interface will decrease again in the cultures that will follow it (if there will be any). It will then no longer be possible to maintain the scientific knowledge we have acquired. These societies might be too small to maintain any complex knowledge, technology, or philosophy and too small to maintain techniques like printing or even writing. They would also become unable to maintain any definitive knowledge of their own history. Culture will shatter into smaller units with different, simpler and again partially fictitious world views.

In science, we have opened our eyes to the world much wider than ever before, but the price of having been able to do so will likely be much higher than what we ever expected to pay.

(The picture, showing a large astronomical telescope, is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ESO_Very_Large_Telescope.jpg.)

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[1] With this article, I am taking up a bundle of lines of thought again that I have explored before in  Culture and Information, Clay Tablets, Blue Prints, and some others, the main topic being the relationship between culture and information.

[2] These mechanism and processes will very likely form the topics for some future articles.

4 thoughts on “Increasing the Bandwidth

  1. This

    Inside the total culture, subcultures are forming whose bandwidth might even be narrowing, and might be more or less intentionally be restricted, through ideology, denialism, consumerism

    reminds me of Ken Ham. His view is restricted to Genesis

  2. Pingback: Changing Stories? (Part 1: Culture) | Orientikate*

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