funes the memorious

The Only Way to Know

It is ironic that I had completely forgotten that I had already read Funes the Memorious, an incredible story of a man who acquires a perfect memory after a fall, before I stumbled upon it in another text I was reading, and re-read it. Funes, rather than being empowered by his perfect memory, becomes inundated with extremely precise details of trivial information and is tormented by it. The author then postulates that Funes wasn’t quite capable of thought, despite his perfect and infallible memory, because “to think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions”. It is an extremely rich story, and it had me wandering in different directions of thought.

Internet and Information organization
We, as a species, have recently arrived at a stage where we are generating records upon records of information, and most of it is getting stored somewhere- on the cloud, on our phones, in Hard Drives that no one ever touches. It has come to a point where the information stored in our heads is actually the most at risk of being the most corrupted source of information. We can draw an analogy here and think of the Internet as Funes, with a gargantuan memory, ever increasing, ever trivial.
If Borges is right about the nature of thought, then the Internet is also incapable of thought, because most of the information on the interwebs is unorganized and unconnected. There have been, to be fair, attempts to organize and link information through Wikis, but that fails at the other critical juncture- of making abstractions. We are still reliant on the human mind to supply the abstractions, and then consume more memory to describe and link those abstractions. These things may change with inferential statistical models, and only then can we surely say that we have created a fully automated conscious, the next logical step in human evolution (assuming we meet our energy demands sustainably).
In its current form, however, the internet is unwieldy for most humans who don’t have the patience or the time to draw their own detailed abstractions. That leads to a pattern of information consumption that is quite often incomplete and in a way, more mendacious than not knowing. Since the internet (think of reddit forums as an abstract reduction of the internet) is also quite democratic and self moderated, the information in it hovers around an equilibrium state of usefulness- too much moderation and you lose diversity, too little and you have a chaotic mess of trivia. As long as the guiding principle is the civil pursuit of truth with a little bit of humor thrown in here and there, the equilibrium is stable, and quite frankly, magical. The moment either the balance of moderation or the guiding principles go out of whack, the equilibrium goes out of whack and starts churning out vile garbage and misinformation.
This principle of information organization can also be applied to managing teams and companies, where you have to allow a healthy balance between structure and chaos to generate optimal growth and results.

The Infinite Nature of Memory
We would always need infinite memory to capture all the information in the world. Imagine that every memory is a discrete unit. So there would be say, X units, of information in the universe. Now we need another unit to capture the fact that there are X units of information, leading to an unending positive loop. As usual, we can invoke a bigger infinity to capture the essence of this infinity, but then we go into a different kind of loop. There seems to be no theoretical upper bound to the information in the universe, as gleaned from this silly little thought experiment. I may be making an error in my reasoning, so let me know if you have any thoughts on the matter.

The Only Way to Know
It thus seems like the only way to “know” something is to compress the information into usable bites, meshed tightly with other useful bites, infinitely detailed, like a fractal pattern, and yet perfectly cohesive, like its seed patterns. Or like how a few basic laws of physics allow you to explain and predict extremely complicated phenomena, with the zoom level determining the complexity and the scale of the problem. Explain a car moving on a highway as a rolling object and it is a perfectly workable solution, but get into the details of the exact path, down to the smallest picometer, the center of mass of the car takes, and you get an infinitely detailed problem, still approachable by the same set of rules, yet with a much higher computational load.
And that reduction of the world into a comprehensible set of rules is what science is, and that is quite exhilarating.