Richard G. Epstein
The Sentinel-Observer's Public Affairs
Hank Morgan, Moderator: Welcome to another episode of In-Depth, the Silicon Valley Sentinel-Observer's public affairs television program. Our guest this evening is Professor Samantha Ett, Professor of Philosophy at Silicon Valley University.
Professor Ett is the author of Toxic Knowledge, from the University of Chicago Press. This is Professor Ett's fourth major book. All of her books have centered on one central theme: lust in the modern world. Her first book was about sexual lust. Her second and third books were about the lust for power and the lust for money, respectively. Toxic Knowledge is about our insatiable lust for knowledge and information. The jacket of her book carries this tongue in cheek warning, reminiscent of the warning one finds on a carton of ice cream: "Warning: The surgeon general has determined that too much knowledge may be dangerous to your health."
Professor Ett, welcome to our program.
Samantha Ett: Thank you.
Morgan: Can you explain the warning on your book jacket?
Ett: It's an attempt to capture the essence of the book using a catchy phrase. The point is that our desire for information and for knowledge is starting to get us into trouble. Do we really need all of the information and knowledge that we are creating and generating?
Morgan: So, your book is about toxic information as well as toxic knowledge?
Ett: Yes. The original title of my book was The Toxicity of Information and Knowledge in the CyberAge and the publisher chopped that down to Toxic Knowledge.
Morgan: How would you distinguish between information and knowledge?
Ett: Information has a technical definition that is nearly 100 years old. Someone named Claude Shannon came up with this concept around 1940. Information is any kind of signal that helps us to answer a question. The basic unit of information is the binary digit or bit, which can be in either of two states. So, the simplest form of information can provide us with the answer to a yes-no question, such as, "What state is that bit in?"
People rapidly came to the realization that information was a fundamental concept in nature. The universe consists of energy and information. They are two sides of the same coin. We discovered the foundations for living organisms in genetic information. We discovered how the brain stores information in spread-out holographic patterns. We created the Infosphere, the Global Landscape, and its awesome resources for the storage and retrieval of information.
Morgan: The amount of information that is at our disposal is staggering. But, do we need all of this information?
Ett: That is one of the central questions that my book explores. Not only do I ask whether we need all of this information, I also explore the impact of this information upon society and upon human consciousness.
Morgan: According to your book, that impact has been profound.
Ett: No sensible person could dispute that. The Global Landscape offers us tremendous amounts of information. What has changed dramatically in recent years is the manner in which softbots are able to use artificial intelligence to extract information from the Global Landscape.
Morgan: Which brings us to the subject of knowledge.
Ett: Well, here things get somewhat controversial. Before the advent of artificial intelligence, the distinction between information and knowledge was a bit more clear. Knowledge resided in human beings. Knowledge was the product that one extracted from information by a process of refinement. Our senses are bombarded with information, this has been true since time immemorial, and the brain processes that information, creates abstractions, procedures, and the result is knowledge. Knowledge came in various forms, such as theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge. Ultimately, knowledge gave one the power to accomplish useful tasks, or at least, to make reasonable predictions about events in the world of the senses.
Morgan: How have things changed?
Ett: I think it is difficult to deny that softbots have knowledge, so knowledge is no longer just the province of human beings. When we ask a softbot to do some research for us on the Global Landscape, that softbot uses its knowledge to perform its task. The information that we receive from the Global Landscape is no longer raw data. It has been refined and organized for us by the softbot.
There was a time when we might ask a scientist or an expert to interpret information for us. That was the role of the scientist. The scientist was a source of knowledge. Of course, it was our responsibility to process the information coming from the scientist and to assimilate it into our own framework, but it was still knowledge. Now, softbots are increasingly playing the role of the scientist with respect to the Global Landscape. We are increasingly relying on softbots to organize, interpret, and even theorize about the information that is contained out there. So, a lot of the knowledge work that used to be the sole province of human beings is now being done by computers.
When you put all of this together, we have an explosion of information and an explosion of knowledge. That knowledge is coming both from the scientific community and from the softbots who create knowledge out of the information available in the Global Landscape. The main issue is whether this onslaught of information and knowledge is good for us, or whether this information and knowledge might be harmful.
Morgan: We have more and more information, and more and more knowledge. Even the scientific knowledge, generated by human beings is staggering, but softbots are performing more and more sophisticated research on the Global Landscape. They are coming up with new knowledge, about human communications, for example, all by themselves.
Ett: I am trying to get people to consider the impact of all of this new information upon the vitality of the human organism.
Morgan: Biologically, the human brain seems to have been designed to process huge amounts of information.
Ett: This is true. The brain processes huge amounts of information and reduces them to perceptions, to sights, sounds, and smells. But, I do not think that the brain was designed to handle so much abstract or linguistic information. The brain that was designed to process information in a natural setting is now functioning almost entirely in an environment of linguistic abstraction and concepts. So, what is happening to the brain is one of the questions that I ponder in my book.
Morgan: The great Sufi poet, Rumi, said that the human race creates the organs that it needs, that the human body is an expression of human purposes at a deep level.
Ett: That may be, but I would like to see the scientific evidence for that.
Morgan: Isn't it possible that the world of technology is merely an expression of what Rumi was talking about? The Global Landscape, the softbots, the perceptual and cognitive prostheses, are all new organs that mankind is creating because of the human desire for knowledge and information?
Ett: That is a fascinating observation. You are saying that computers are merely a new kind of organ of perception that human beings have developed because of our great desire for information and knowledge? So, Rumi was not just talking about biological evolution?
Ett: But, I think that Rumi was talking about human capabilities, like extrasensory perception. I don't think he was talking about computers.
Morgan: Of course not. He lived eight hundred years ago, but his theory may apply to our current situation.
Ett: I am not prepared to talk about this speculation of yours. It's a new idea and I would need some time to think about it. I see computers more as a threat to the brain, rather than as a new kind of brain.
Morgan: Not a new kind of brain, but an extension to the brain. In fact, I think this theory fits right in with your writings concerning the relationship between knowledge and desire. You write that artificial intelligence and cyberspace are expressions of the human desire for more and more information and for more and more knowledge.
Ett: Yes. They are expressions of an inordinate desire for these things, in my opinion.
Morgan: Well, let's hear about this perspective and then let's see if it correlates with the theory that I just posed.
Ett: My books have all been about inordinate desires, or desires that are completely out of control, desires that have exceeded the bounds of nature. In my opinion, many of the ills of the modern world are caused by desires that are completely out of control.
Morgan: Desires that are out of control are harmful?
Ett: Obviously. The lust for power, for money, for sex, can create tremendous human misery and suffering. Desire is the natural human condition, but when there is no sense of proportion, of rightness, then desire becomes lust, and at that point, the result is human suffering, even destruction.
In Toxic Knowledge, I explore the issue of our lust for knowledge and the ways in which this lust seems to be getting us into trouble. It seems to me that any kind of inordinate desire will get us into trouble eventually.
Morgan: You repeatedly use the phrase "inordinate desire" in your book, and you have used it several times this evening. But, what you characterize as being "inordinate" may seem quite appropriate to the next person. We don't want to place everyone in a monolithic straight jacket in terms of the desire for sex, money, power, and now, knowledge. We need to acknowledge individual differences.
Ett: When the consequences of desire are hurtful, then we can safely assert that the desire was "inordinate" or excessive. Of course, there are gray areas, but there are also clear examples of cases in which a person's lust for power or for money or for sex, or even for knowledge, has caused tremendous human suffering.
We are now in a situation, however, in which the desire for knowledge and information is being artificially stimulated by the great megacorporations and other interests who run and profit from the information industry explosion. There are forces in society who spend enormous resources on stimulating our desire for knowledge and information because that is how they make their money.
Morgan: I think you would have to admit that their ability to stimulate our desire for information and for knowledge has created unprecedented prosperity.
Ett: But, it also has had some undesirable side effects. In order to enjoy prosperity, we need to consciously direct that prosperity in a positive direction.
Morgan: What's the difference between lusting for knowledge and just thirsting for knowledge?
Ett: In speaking to my fellow academics about knowledge and about what we might call the "thirst for knowledge", where thirst puts a positive spin on "lust", I found that academics have a positive attitude about the thirst for knowledge, as one might expect. Our ideal in academia is the professor who can stimulate her students to develop that thirst.
Morgan: That lust.
Ett: Well, when does the thirst become a lust? That's part of what my book is about. So, in academia the thirst for knowledge is viewed as a virtue. We try to stimulate that thirst to the maximum extent.
Morgan: You write that the thirst for knowledge is not viewed as an unambiguous good, even in the popular culture.
Ett: The first part of my book is devoted to the research that I did on the public perception of the thirst for knowledge, and the evolution of that perception down through the ages, and especially in modern times, since the advent of cinema, television, the computer, and cyberspace.
In most traditional cultures, there is a great emphasis on acquiring knowledge, but true knowledge is called wisdom, and wisdom was presumed to have an association with goodness. This is true not only for religious traditions, but also for the tradition of philosophy, that developed in Greece. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, classical Philosophy, these strategies for addressing the ultimate questions, all involved the search for wisdom, that is, the search for knowledge that is rooted in goodness. In these systems, wisdom, or genuine knowledge, was the domain of the virtuous.
Morgan: You are generalizing here. For example, there are differences between the religions and between groups within a particular religion.
Ett: Of course. Even from the earliest times it was recognized that knowledge per se was not necessarily good. Look at the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God warned Adam and Eve not to partake of that tree. In partaking of that tree, they were rebelling against God. So, wisdom is knowledge that is rooted in goodness, in virtue, but knowledge goes beyond those bounds. Knowledge contains the potential for harm, even for evil. Implicit in the Biblical story of the Garden is the idea that there are things we'd be better off not knowing.
Morgan: Your book cites many myths that warn of the dangers of knowledge, so in our mythological consciousness, knowledge was not necessarily seen as something good or positive. Knowledge was seen as being potentially dangerous.
Ett: Knowledge is potentially dangerous.
Morgan: That perception is indeed mirrored in the popular culture.
Ett: My book gives dozens of examples. The mad scientist and the evil professor are stereotypes that permeate the movies, television, popular literature, and virtual reality entertainment. So, in academia, the thirst for knowledge is seen as positive, whereas in the popular culture, it is seen as being ambiguous, even sinister. It is rare to see, in the popular culture, a scientist or a professor being portrayed in a positive way. In the popular culture, the thirst for knowledge is seen as being menacing, and I think that the popular culture may be more attuned to the truth than academia. I think that our thirst for knowledge has become extremely dangerous and threatening to human sovereignty and happiness.
Morgan: In your book you point out that the image of the mad scientist, the knowledge-lusting professor, really came to the fore after World War II, after the development of the atomic bomb.
Ett: Yes. The atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction are obvious examples of how knowledge that is not rooted in goodness can be dangerous. Imagine all of the human creative energy that was required to produce these weapons of mass destruction, including the horrific biological and chemical weapons that terrorists got their hands on earlier in this century. Imagine the good that might have been accomplished if this creative energy had been devoted to good ends, like protecting the environment, improving education, or eradicating poverty.
Morgan: So, knowledge has been toxic for a long time.
Ett: Toxic knowledge has existed from the earliest times, the earliest cultures. For example, I would consider sorcery and black magic as toxic knowledge.
Morgan: But, your book makes the point that there has been a dramatic change in recent decades. How is the present situation different from the situation of say, seventy years ago, when nuclear weapons were first introduced?
Ett: I would say that the bulk of my book is an attempt to alert the reader to the subtle changes that are occurring in our relationship to knowledge, and that these changes are dangerous. Knowledge is becoming more and more like a form of pollution.
Morgan: I dog eared page 234 of your book, where you write, "Knowledge in the modern world is a form of pollution in the sense that it overwhelms the natural order and makes it difficult for the natural order to survive. The sheer volume of knowledge that assaults us overwhelms the brain's capacity to assimilate and absorb. The knowledge industry views human consciousness as a mammoth toxic waste dump into which it can pour its effluence without any kind of constraint."
Ett: Yes. The production of information and knowledge knows no bounds. Where is all of this information going and what is it doing to human consciousness?
Do we really need all of this information? Do you really want to know the subtle health effects of every single food and every single nutrient, and the unexpected way, for example, that certain nutrients react, as scientists are just finding out? Do you really want to know your expected day of death, to within a few days, and all of the ailments to which you are genetically prone? Do you really want to know every little detail about your neighbor's life, what is going on in every remote corner of the world, when you don't even pay attention to what is happening right in front of your nose? Do you really need to know what is going on behind your back, wearing those idiotic panoramic vision glasses, when you don't even know what is going on within your own heart?
Morgan: An important part of your argument about the toxicity of knowledge and information is that the human brain is beginning to show signs of deterioration.
Ett: Yes. There has been actual physiological damage on an extremely subtle level, and the latest research on Specific Subject Aphasias should have everyone quite worried. The effect is very subtle, and its detection requires the latest in holographic brain imaging. Some of the damage is more obvious, involving manifest symptoms that affect the quality of life in a measurable way.
In particular, research is showing that the relentless assault of knowledge and information is manifesting as restless energy and especially, nights filled with disturbing dreams. One study has shown that the typical adult male of 2026 does not sleep as well as his counterpart of 2006. This was the dramatic finding of an ambitious longitudinal study that was conducted at the Harvard University Medical School. The subjects in this study had fewer periods of restful sleep, they tended to wake up more, often in a disturbed frame of mind, and their sleep was filled with almost continuous dreams, many of which were disturbing. A new study, due out later this year, will show similar effects among women. We need more longitudinal studies of this nature in order to monitor the long term effects of the new cyberworld we are creating.
We need much more information about this phenomenon, but the Harvard researchers suggest that the cause for these sleep disturbances is that the brain is being overwhelmed by information. The brain uses sleep to try to set its house in order, but the brain is being overwhelmed by information, and does not have the time to assimilate and absorb everything it is being told. It's as if you were to receive five hundred packages in the mail every day. How can you sort through it all?
The Harvard researchers speculate that this trend towards less restful sleep will have negative health implications as people age, so that the onset of aging, especially in terms of the functioning of memory, will occur at an earlier age than previously. Of course, this is just speculation at this point in time, but it is a sobering thought. We are talking about real, physiological effects of the new world of information and cyberspace.
Morgan: Your book cites the Harvard study and several other studies, but you offer your own speculations on the effects that information overload may be having on human consciousness.
Ett: Unfortunately, the effect is quite subtle and difficult to measure, but there has been a dramatic change in the way that the human brain is processing information in this age of cyberspace as compared to all previous generations.
I like to use the analogy of food. If a person eats too much, the excess gets stored as fat. Now, what happens psychologically, when the brain is exposed to more information than it can possibly assimilate? What happens to all of that excess information? What are the psychological and physiological analogs to fat? There is something going on in the brain, on a planetary scale, something akin to the accumulation of fat. At first the brain is just overwhelmed, as evidenced by the disturbed sleep of the human subjects. Then, I think the brain starts to die, drowning in the toxic wastes it cannot process and dispose of by natural means. Dreaming is a waste-disposal process, but dreaming is no longer up to the task.
So, there is the prospect of a kind of brain death. Perhaps specific subject aphasias are the result of this information overload. Parts of the brain are dying because they are being overwhelmed with too much information. We need more studies.
Morgan: So, one aspect of the sea change that you discuss is the sheer volume of information that is available.
Ett: Not only available - this information is being forced upon us, and business is creating an artificial desire for this information or knowledge, or whatever you want to call it. It is a strange mixture of information and chunks of knowledge, all thrown at us in a great avalanche, and then we are asked to make sense of it, to deal with it.
Morgan: So, one aspect of toxic knowledge, is that we have too much of it, more than we can handle.
Ett: Yes, and the business community is artificially stimulating the thirst for knowledge. Knowledge is a commodity. The business community sells it, so like any other commodity, there is a marketing campaign, to convince people that they need more and more knowledge in order to survive, to function, and to compete, in modern society.
Morgan: But, there's a second major thrust to this sea change. It's not just the volume of information or knowledge, that is being thrust at us, it's the way in which knowledge is becoming ever more personal.
Ett: This is important. When scientists invented the atom bomb, that kind of knowledge and technology was not personal. Now, new forms of knowledge are reaching maturity that are highly personal. The most obvious of these involve genetics.
The economic value of genetic information is enormous. Thirty years ago marketers were interested in getting information about the buying habits of the consumer. They created huge databases about what people were buying, so that they could target their marketing campaigns to specific individuals. This raised many issues, at that time, concerning privacy.
Now, in the 2020s, the marketers want genetic information more than anything. If a marketer can get her hands on your genetic information, that marketer would know more about your buying habits than she could possibly obtain from any other source. The marketer would know your proclivities, what you like to eat, whether you prefer broccoli or kale, what your lifestyle will be, what your health problems will be. There's no end to it.
The economic value of genetic information is staggering. A drop of blood is literally a pile of cash for marketers. I do not think it is widely known how aggressive marketing companies have become in order to get their hands on genetic information.
Unlike theoretical physics or rocket science, genetic information is highly personal. It has to do with your unique identity. This is a much more personal form of knowledge than E = mc2.
Morgan: So, it is not just the sheer volume of information and new knowledge that has you concerned, it is the personal nature of that information and knowledge.
Ett: Yes, it is highly personal. It has to do with our personal and unique identities. And powerful economic forces are driving the acquisition of these new forms of knowledge.
For example, what does privacy mean in this day and age? Despite the Freedom of Information Act, which purportedly guarantees privacy, it is possible to gather enormous amounts of information about individuals from the Global Landscape using powerful inference engines. We have no privacy because the scientists don't know how to give us privacy. Personal privacy and system security are not consistent. That is, in order to have a secure global information infrastructure, we need to keep track of all activities in that infrastructure, and that's the main reason that we do not have privacy.
Morgan: Can you summarize for us the various ways in which knowledge and information can be toxic?
Ett: First, knowledge is toxic when it becomes so burdensome, so overwhelming, that it damages the human organism on a subtle, physiological level. Second, knowledge is toxic when it interferes with fundamental human rights, like the right to privacy. Third, knowledge is toxic when we are confronted with knowledge that we don't want, don't need, and would be better off not having. Fourth, knowledge is toxic when our lust for it becomes so great, that natural intelligence is no longer adequate to satisfy that lust, so we must rely on artificial intelligence. Fifth, knowledge is toxic when it becomes an idol, when human beings surrender their autonomy and spiritual freedom to "conventional wisdom", to knowledge that is offered as inviolate truth. An example of this last kind of toxicity is the belief that biology is destiny. Of course, biology is destiny to some extent, but geneticists are trying to make us believe that all human foibles, such as alcoholism, and even behaviors such as lying, are at root genetic problems, whereas the truth is that human beings do have freedom, we do make choices.
Morgan: You also warn that knowledge is toxic because it can make the brain lazy. This is another way in which the Global Landscape with its intelligent softbots may be harming the human organism.
Ett: The boundary between the human being and the computer has become blurred. Just because you can get a softbot to quote the Bill of Rights for you in a split second, simply by issuing a verbal command, does not mean that you know and understand the Bill of Rights. I think there is a danger here where forms of knowledge and memory that used to reside in the human organism are now residing on the Global Landscape. My book gives dozens of examples, but in fact, this is a pervasive fact of life in the twenty-first century. We are confused about the knowledge that is ours and the information that is readily retrievable from the Global Landscape. Why bother to learn about the U.S. Constitution when all of the information I could possibly need about the Constitution is available instantly via computer when I need it? So, I suppose that people do view the Global Landscape and other computer systems as an extension of their own being, their brains, and their memories.
Morgan: You suggest all sorts of sinister forces at play. For example, it is in the interest of the medical profession to have us believe that biology is destiny.
Ett: Your doctor might say, "because of this or that genetic pattern, you are destined to develop heart disease at age 52, so your best option, to pre-empt that, is to have a pig's heart transplant at 38, just to be absolutely safe."
In my opinion, the best work of fiction of the last ten years was Max Groom's novel, The Nonconformist that was published in 2020.
Morgan: I interviewed Max Groom a few years back.
Ett: The hero in Groom's novel is a man who is determined to know only what he absolutely needs to know. He does not want any kind of superfluous knowledge or any kind of artificial knowledge. He is determined to avoid all toxic forms of knowledge, although Max Groom did not call it "toxic knowledge". My own book owes a great debt to The Nonconformist because it inspired me to investigate the nature of knowledge in the modern world and why it was so different in nature to anything that the human race has seen before. The Nonconformist helped me to see the lust for knowledge as a powerful reality in our society and it helped me to see the social and the economic forces that feed this lust and perpetuate it.
Morgan: Could you go over the plot of The Nonconformist for our audience, for those who may not have read it?
Ett: The hero of Groom's book, Max Grumstein, Groom's obvious altar ego, is determined to know only what he absolutely needs to know. He intuits that there is a proper level of knowledge conducive to human happiness, but that too much knowledge is destructive of human happiness. The book especially focuses on genetic information. The hero refuses to read over the lab reports that spell out his medical destiny in great detail. He refuses to know what everyone around him knows, that he is likely to die on or around July 1, which is only a few days off. His death, at fifty-three, will be untimely, from the purely human perspective. A lot of the novel is a flashback, taking place in the hero's memory, but the dramatic focus is on July 1st, when, according to his genetic information, he is destined to die.
Everyone in his environment, his doctor, his wife, his children, his friends, his colleagues at work, know that his genetic information says that he will die in just a few days, on July 1 or thereabouts. The hero believes that if he does not believe in the expectations of others, he can beat the rap, he can survive past July 1st. So, he is in a constant struggle not to believe or even to receive the information that everyone around him has easy access to.
By heroic efforts, he seems to be beating the odds. He doesn't suffer a heart attack in June, as his genetic information predicted, and he is still going strong on July 1st. He is in a constant battle to overcome the overwhelming expectations of everyone around him, the doctors, his family, his colleagues and friends, that July 1st is his day. The people in his environment see scientific knowledge as an absolute, but he is determined to be a nonconformist.
On July 1st he is apparently healthy, but on the way home from work he gets killed in an automobile accident. It's a wonderfully constructed novel, and I am not doing it justice, but Max Groom is making a statement about the almost magical influence of our beliefs, the power of the subconscious mind to create a destiny for us in accordance not only with our own beliefs, but in accordance with the beliefs of others. We are subconsciously influenced by the expectations of others. These negative emotions are themselves a form of pollution.
Morgan: According to Max Groom, the subconscious is the collective unconscious. It is communal, so if the entire community thinks that the book's hero will die on July 1st, then that will manifest.
Ett: Yes. Creation works in this manner. History is the unfolding of human expectations.
Morgan: Can we return to this idea of Rumi's, that mankind creates new organs of perception as the need arises? Does this seem at all plausible to you? When we talk about computer systems, are we really talking about new organs of perception that human beings are creating for themselves?
Ett: That may be, but then I would suggest that we must guide the evolution of these new organs of perception and of knowledge consciously, so that we do not do irreversible damage to the human organism.
Morgan: So, in the long run, if human beings learn how to use this new technology without diminishing human passion and enthusiasm, without damaging the human organism, the brain, in particular, then this new technology will be a boon to mankind.
Ett: Yes, that is what I would like to see. That is why I wrote a cautionary book about the toxicity of knowledge. I am certainly not saying that we should throw all of this technology in the trash. Maybe we can learn to master this technology. Then, I will accept your idea that computers are a new organ of perception, a new and positive development in the evolution of the human race.
Morgan: Thank you for joining us this evening.
Ett: Thank you for having me on your program.
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