“So you’re saying we don’t know?”
“No, what I am saying is that we can’t know.”
The two friends were sitting on the grass under the shade of a drooping tree. They were enjoying the heat of the mid-day, staring out at the shimmering waters before them. The friends had spent the last few days in this agreeable way, and they both knew that they were just where they should be.
On some of those days the two friends took to pondering the imponderables.
“Does anybody know?”
“Well, together we all sort of know, but no one knows.”
“Ok, now you’re just being ridiculous. I am going for a swim.”
With an exasperated huff, the friend got up and awkwardly shuffled his way across the hot sand in the direction of the water.
As the other friend sat staring out at the water, he contemplated what it was that he was seeing. Right now photons were emerging after banging around inside the sun for thousands of years. In unfathomable numbers, these packets of light energy streamed silently away from the sun, through the blackness of space, through the earth’s atmosphere, finally slamming into the surface of the water. Through reflection and refraction photons were scattering off the water, with only a lucky few quadrillion finding their way into his eyes where they caused a chemical reaction within his retina.
He wondered how much of the vast amount of information encoded in the waves of photons washing across his retina was being recorded. Was there a memory lattice somewhere deep within the earth’s crust being reorganized in concert with the photonic reactions within his eyes?
He knew that some part of that information would surely be stored – What way was the wind blowing? How big were the waves rippling across the bay? What chemicals were likely present in the water given the emission spectra? What and how many animals were likely swimming below those ripples? How many birds were flying across the sky? It was all science, but what was of interest to the net, or even how much of the information could be saved, were unknown to him.
He could of course simply think a little further to the right and find out what datasets were being collected, but current fashions espoused the value of disconnection from the net.
“People should wonder and dream, this is our purpose in the net. We are not meant to subsist on daily rations of dried information. Go out into the world and feel.” In his mind’s eye he could hear the roars of agreement as the popular line of thinking spread through the net.
Where had this new trend really come from he wondered? Was there really any value to random human thought patterns from a disconnected mind, or was the net just trying to push for a little more data collection? There must be better ways to collect information than through imperfect biology. Maybe it was just a fad….
He couldn’t be sure, which he guessed must in itself be the point. “What an oddly thrilling feeling, this not knowing,” he thought, as he got up and walked towards the water.
He felt the sand under his feet turn from hot and dry to wet and cool. He could smell the salty sea air. More data.
His mind strayed to the past. How many times had this kind of idyllic scene passed into the retinas of people before him? Maybe someone had stood right where he was and felt the water lapping at their feet. They would have taken in all of the deep information around them, just as he was and then…. He shuddered at the thought of all of that lost information, all of it just gone.
Thousands of years of perception boiled down to a few exabytes recorded in the preposterously inefficient encoding of written language. By modern comparison, even the people of the 21st century had managed to record pitifully little through the digital technology they had so embraced. With his sensory input alone he was probably generating an equivalent amount of data every minute as the whole of pre-digital era of human history.
“Did people used to know?”
His friend’s question snapped him out of his contemplation.
“We thought we did, but we were wrong.”
“Is there no way to simplify it?”
“Any simplification that you could understand would be so far from the truth that it wouldn’t really be useful.”
“Couldn’t I learn enough to understand it?”
“It would take an impossibly long time to learn even the underlying theories, it is just too much for one mind to ever comprehend.”
Standing waist deep as the small waves rolled past him, his friend stared back at him with an unsatisfied look.
“Individually we are just too limited, but together with each of us holding small pieces of the answer and with the net connecting us we really can know. Together we know.”
His friend sighed and turned towards the sun.
He watched as his friend slapped at the water, the light glinted off the water droplets flying through the air.
More data, he thought.
With the growth of big data, an ever increasing volume of information is going to be gathered from our bodies. This may lead to great scientific insights and new ways of understanding the world, but as this store of information grows exponentially, we may also find that the complexity of models that must be constructed to understand the world also increase exponentially. Will we soon find ourselves in a place where we have answers to the mysteries of the universe, but we don’t understand them?