Namur Award 1991 Lecture

by Prof. J. WEIZENBAUM
January 11, 1991

(Notes by members of the audience)

Information: Explosion - Implosion ?

The Rotschild Family made their fortune on the privileged information they acquired during the Napoleon's defeat: on an insider information. Is it a reason to argue of the growing importance of information in society, of the "value of information" : the more, the sooner ? Same situation with the family Mellon in the USA: fortune based on insider information. Is all that not cheating?

We live in a society which is said to be based on information. It is called an "information society", based on "instantly and globally available information." Information is like water. We need it for our life and for the functioning of our society, but we don't need tidal waves, like in the Deluge's time. Do we really need the kind of information explosion that we know? What is the sense of this explosion?

The scientific production becomes more and more prolific but is globally uncontrolled. Its legibility and reliability become doubtful. Most of these productions are linked with artificial writing techniques where f.i. everyone is picking material out of context in previous writings with paragraphs which are not linked one to the other. That leads to writing artifacts without communicating anything.

Let us take the examples of so called academic excellence. There is an artificial requirement for Faculty members to publish public papers. What we know is a flood of information that says nothing and is not read by anyone. We know examples of papers which contain typical inversions repeatedly, since the original proof contains it: such papers are written with word processing and nobody has corrected them, since they have not been read!

We also know many examples of artificial writing. Many academics can tell that, most often, the first question which is raised by students to whom you ask to write a paper is: "How many pages do you want?", which means that they fear not to be read!

Finally, with the explosion of information, everybody is convinced that is quite impossible to read everything. Then, how to proceed? By sampling? We know that sampling doesn't work.

Moreover, the language itself is devaluated. Even in the scientific papers, the writing is terrible: you find many "You know what I mean, don't you?": the words are loosing their substance and coherence. Quality of the papers is becoming bad, since the thoughts are ill defined. We may add that with techniques like automatic indexing all the words are put practically on the same level. Significance and meaning are weakened if not disappearing. We are in a world where the paper is rare: we would have to write only when we have really something to say!

In another way, we are not facing an information explosion but an information implosion. This implosion leads to routinization in the use of information research means, which is not related to the capacities and training of the users.

Ten years ago, Marvin Minsky in M.I.T. made the proposal, when he was questioned about the replacement of the computer material of the laboratory, to leave an old computer for the sole use of a young researcher. There was a "tollé". Today, everybody has on his desk the same working capacity but do we do better research of higher quality?

Responsibility

Another example of non-sense linked with the overspecialization is the interconnection between different stock exchanges systems on financial places. The financial world has imploded in 1987 because everything was globalized. It had become a gambling casino. The financial crash of New York showed the unstability of such a system and emphasized the snowball effect which is linked to it. "If things are worsening, things are becoming worse." This is what happens on sea with a sailing boat. The bed axis can suddenly be exceeded and the boat capsizes. Why?

This enormous network of networks has been designed by nobody. Nobody has planned it. It has been developed from multiple points and according to coherences which were foreseen from the short term efficiency point of view only. Nobody is responsible for the global interconnection. Nobody has the authority to stop the exchange system. No authority and no means exist to see that the system is becoming foolish and that it would have to be stopped.

It would have been the best solution to stop it for a while, for fifteen minutes, just to keep the decisions which were taken in a chain process, just to assess the truth of some information and the real causes of such information, but nobody was ready to do it.

The key question is the control of the time. We would need more time to take some decisions. The rhythm of the computers and of the telecommunication systems is not the rhythm of time which is needed to take meaningful decisions. We must measure the differences between the so-called intelligence of such techniques and the stupidity of the contents which are conveyed by such techniques.

We cannot go ahead with gambling because most of the time it turns out in cheating.

The world is full of all kinds of waves, of unreadable information. Technology may help to decode it but where there is too much food, it begins with nausea and vomiting.

We have to restrict our openness on information and promote human and face to face relationships. The attention is greater when one listens to the radio than when one watches to television !

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Insitut d'Informatique - 19/10/2000