On Pagel's ‘Infinite Stupidity’, and what new information is

NOTE HXA7241 2012-08-18T09:24Z

The article ‘Infinite Stupidity’ makes a novel and interesting point. But it does not quite seem to stand up, and examination of why begins to unravel what information is and where it comes from.

Point 1

“fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.”

‘Infinite Stupidity’; Pagel; 2011-12-15.

Counter 1-1

The article makes no argument that the system as a whole would become less innovative. Even if each person individually became less innovative, everyone together could become more innovative.

Consider as a baseline example everyone innovating their way through life and never copying. Now imagine every innovation being copied once: for every innovation you make you get one for free. Each individual need only be half as innovative, yet have equal benefit as before. Or maybe it is not a factor of two, but 1000: each individual need only be 1000th as innovative, yet be just as well-off.

And this would be better than being more innovative in a significant economic kind of sense: everyone enjoys the same or greater benefits, yet with less effort since copying is easier.

Counter 1-2

But even that seems an underestimate because the most important source or lead to innovation is most likely information itself. More copying makes innovation easier.

“So, for example, if I'm trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.”

‘Infinite Stupidity’; Pagel; 2011-12-15.

But the copy is a substantial part of the understanding. The copy embodies/expresses the understanding to a substantial degree. When you copy you do not just get the object, you get some of the understanding too.

Of course, most spear copiers will not understand much and merely get a good spear cheaply. But for however many of those who can understand they can now spend their effort improving that innovation instead of re-inventing the whole thing again.

Main diagnosis

The article depends on a view or implication of ‘copying’ and ‘innovation’ as isolated things – as if they work like boxed consumer-goods: one person creates the ‘product’ from nothing, and another person uses it only as prescribed. But that does not seem essentially right. Really they are like two ends of the same spectrum, and neither is an end-point of activity: both are forms of informational behaviour but with different emphases, and the value is not in one or the other alone but in how they work together.

An innovation/invention is not simply a discovery, like finding a new material object. It is abstract, informational: it finds and exploits a pattern, a regularity, in the physical world. To invent is to find a (useful) pattern, and a pattern is that which exists in a kind of set of repetitions or copies. The value of an invention is substantially because it is copyable. If an invention were not copyable, it would no longer be an invention.

Information – the underlying substance of invention – does not exist like isolated boxed consumer products, information is like different regions of a single global relation.

Factual evidence

And, tangentially, there is the historical evidence.

Think of scientific knowledge. It has not been built in isolation, by individuals having a spark and never connecting to others before or after them. Science is built (famously) on the work of others. The most substantial, valuable invention we have – science – shows strongly and extensively the interconnectness of information/copying and creativity.

Point 2

“And I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn't even be much better than random itself.”

“let's go back to genetic evolution and remember that, there, the generative mechanism is random mutation.”

‘Infinite Stupidity’; Pagel; 2011-12-15.

Counter 2-1

On one hand, information creation is like the problem of design: fundamentally new information can never be deliberately created, because then it would not really be new. Design requires knowledge, but if you already know something you are not creating something new. So it seems the only possible source of new information is non-deliberate: randomness.

But on the other hand, if information can only be created by randomness, or rather, nothing can do better than randomness, that implies there is no order/pattern at all in the universe. But that cannot be true, because it would mean information cannot even exist, because pattern is what information essentially captures or reflects.

However paradoxical those two sides might seem, (like all paradoxes) it is illusory. What is misleading is the phrase or idea of ‘new information’ (it is contradictory: information can never be entirely new). And the paradox is resolved by seeing more clearly what ‘information’ is, and seeing that for it the idea of ‘newness’ has a particular, special meaning.

‘New’ information means changing other information.

Counter 2-2

Evolution is not a good exemplar for the article's further, second proposition. To say evolution is random, or to focus on that, is to overlook much of its action. Each generation does not start ab initio: it repeats the great majority of its genomic structure and randomly varies only a very small amount. And even if the variation has a random kernel (is it really?) it is highly structured in its expression. (It seems plausible that evolution does not only find effective forms, but probably finds effective proto-form abstractions (constraints, guides) to evolve from.)

Evolution very much finds and exploits its environment's regularity – that is, it ‘follows’ informational structure.