THE POLLUTION OF INFORMATION

Kenneth Boulding

The material pollution of rivers, lakes, and the atmosphere is a problem essentially in the material entropy of society, Just as life in the expression of Schroedinger "feeds on entropy", building little systems of high order and structure at the cost of creating more disorder elsewhere, so society also feeds on entropy by taking low-level organizations, such as ores and fossil fuels, combining these with an input of information in the shape of applied human knowledge, and forming them into buildings, machines, food, clothing, and so on, which are highly improbable organizations of matter with low entropy.

Because of the fundamental Second Law of Thermodynamics, however, if entropy is lessened at one place it must be increased even more in another. Organization in one place leads to disorganization outside it. Hence as life does not seem to be able to exist without both an input of rather highly organized materials and information and outputs, perhaps of degraded material and upgraded information, so a social organization like a factory has inputs of raw material, applies information to this, and produces a differentiated output of highly organized products on the one side and effluvia on the other. It is a very rare process that does not produce waste products.

The problem of pollution, therefore, must be seen not as something really incidental to the operations and transactions of society but something quite fundamental in the whole process. It is part of the whole entropy-information processes of society, and any solutions to the problem must recognize that the only remedy for increasing entropy, that is, increasing disorganization, is additional inputs of information of the right kinds, that is, increasing organization. It is fundamentally because the information process is polluted that the rivers are polluted, at least to the degree which they are. This is not to say that pollution can be abolished, which it cannot. The critical question is whether information can be fed into the system which will reduce it to a tolerable degree.

The information system of society is enormously complex, and there are many aspects of it that we do not understand. I shall discuss three processes in the information system which are analogous to pollution. I am not going to try o define information pollution exactly, as it is one of these concepts that perhaps is most useful when it is rather vague. It has, however, at least two aspects which might be distinguished. In the first place, we can speak of information pollution when the information system produces images of the world which are unrealistic in the sense that they do not correspond to some external reality. There are deep philosophical difficulties in this concept which we will neglect. In its most obvious form, however, information is polluted when people tell lies or when error is perpetuated. The second aspect is a more negative one, what might be described as ignorance, when we do not know things which would get us out of trouble if we did know them.

The first case of information pollution is in the price system. This is something which is familiar to economists, though not under this name. The price system, however, is an information system in the sense that it tells people what to do that pays off for them. If the price system fails to reflect the realities of what economists call the system of alternative costs, it is likely to produce false decisions. To put the matter in another way, if the payoffs to individuals are not the same as the payoffs to society, individuals will make decisions which society will regret. A particularly important aspect of this problem is what economists have called external economies and diseconomies, and a good deal of the problem of physical pollution arises because of this kind of failure of the price system. Thus a manufacturer who pollutes the air with smoke and who forces the people around him to pay extra costs for cleaning and to suffer the disutilities of foul air, for which the cause of this inconvenience does not have to pay, is likely to neglect to clean up his gaseous effluent. Similarly, a firm that dumps refuse into a river, causing damages downstream for which also it does not have to pay, is following a private advantage as a result of the price system which it is faced with, which leads to public disadvantage.

The remedy is very clear, to make people pay for the damage they cause. This indeed is the remedy of the law of torts. Unfortunately it is quite inadequate to deal with the complexities of modern society, simply because it is so hard to attribute causes to effects. Where the law of torts is inadequate, remedy may be sought through the tax system. The ideal tax system is the taxation of vice and the subsidization of virtue, and taxes on effluence may succeed where the law of damages fails.

A second source of information pollution results from the development oflarge scale organizations and the inevitable hierarchy which results. A hierarchy pollutes information, again because of a kind of distortion ofthe payoffs. A person rises in a hierarchy by pleasing his superior. He frequently pleases his superior by telling him what that superior wants to hear. Even at the subconscious level, therefore, there is a constant tendency for hierarchy to corrupt communications, and for necessary information to be filtered out before it reaches the top decision makers. The bigger the organization, the more likely are its top decision makers to be living in a wholly imaginary world. There are, however, certain defenses against this kind of information pollution. The development of staff as opposed to line organizations is one such defense; the use of external information sources which are not dependent on the good will of any single superior, such as auditors, research agencies, consulting firms, and so on is another means of defense.

Nevertheless, the tendency for a hierarchy to corrupt information is very powerful, and we see this especially in political organizations such as the State Department. The international system in general, in fact, is a frightening example of how decision makers become trapped with their own information pollution and come to live in a world of half-truths and lies. The pollution of information is also the downfall of dictators, who throw away all the checks and balances and safeguards against information pollution and hence universally become victims of their own power over their information system. The market, interestingly enough, even though as we have seen it has its own problems of information pollution, is itself a certain safeguard against hierarchy, simply because it permits the coordination of many different organizations without hierarchical control.

The third form of information pollution might be described as the problem of saliency. All human beings suffer from some kind of information overload, and under these circumstances it is the dramatic and salient information which breaks through the barriers that we all set up against information input. Hence our images of the world are perverted in the direction of the dramatic and away from those things which happen to be true and important but are not dramatic.

We see this, for instance, in the press, which carefully filters out important information in favor of the dramatic and is extraordinarily careless about sampling. We see it also even in political and business behavior, where a particularly dramatic incident perverts the whole image of the world. A very intractable problem of information pollution arises because the major decision makers are apt to be in late middle life and hence their image of the world is determined and perverted by the saliencies of their youth. Thus today we are suffering in the international system from a "Munich trauma" which to my mind prevents any realistic appraisal of the situation. The only remedy for this form of information pollution is social science, and indeed the whole scientific revolution depends essentially on the development of techniques of sampling and testing which are designed to purify the information streams from error. Science is a kind of sewage plant of the information system, oxidizing error into harmless gas and returning a purer flow of information back into society.

It should be observed that the solution even of the problems of material pollution depends ultimately on cleaning up the pollution of information, for it is defects in the information system which create the material pollution.


Notes

Posted 26 Nov 1997 by Michael Gurstein


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