In the previous column we examined deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the coding used to support all life on earth as we know it.
It controls the living organism, its functioning in the environment, and contains information about functioning. It does not, however, contain information the organism will obtain about surrounding organisms, the environment and its “society.” Obviously, the information gathering and reasoning is controlled by the organism’s capacity to learn and react within the construct of its biological structure: plans are different than animals, microbes are different than humans. But every living organism needs information, consciously or not, to survive.
Clearly a plant does not reason in the sense that it must move itself to find more nourishing ground, but it does grow or not grow based on available nutrition.
The same is true for microbes. But at some point animals gather information and reason how to apply that gathered, ordered data to their advantage. Your pet dog knows how to manipulate you to get a treat. But the dog cannot change his or her collective environment unless he or she runs away, taking a risk without judgmental knowledge.
Humans may or may not be different. It depends on the circumstance and the mental and physical capacity of the being. It also depends on the information available on which to make judgmental decisions. Key to the process is the integrity of the information available on which to make the decision. Is it truthful? Is it complete? Does it make sense to you? Is it based on well performed, unbiased and documented science or is it based on emotional opinion? And has it been filtered?
As humans we hear and use the word integrity in reference to things such as buildings, towers, dams, bridges, stadiums, piers, and even ceiling tiles. It deals with structural integrity, an aspect of engineering. Assuming the thing has integrity, it is built to “code,” it can fail only when an outside force is applied or it degrades because of inherent decay and failure. The structure fails when its integrity is compromised. Perhaps it is a “trivial” failure like a ceiling tile falling to the floor or perhaps it is catastrophic, like the collapse of a bridge. It is not, however, about new information or the current dissemination of information.
Then there is system integrity, a term used in telecommunications or the dissemination and receipt of information. Oct. 30, 1938, CBS radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds,” based on the fictional writing of H. G. Wells.
Reportedly, the show about a Martian invasion caused panic among some listeners.
While it was unintended, disruptive information was distributed. But what if it had been intended? Was it a failure of the societal system’s informational integrity?
Today we have this thing called the internet that permits the rapid and perhaps unregulated dispersal of information. It has a mechanical system of hardware with its internal software for access; the mechanical and integral system for transmission, storage and receipt; and the software systems for understanding the human question or instruction and providing the “appropriate” response. The “appropriate” response is information selected by software created and influenced by human beings, rightly or wrongly.
Out of curiosity I did a search on Google for “size of google database” and received an answer in TB or terabytes. Next I searched for “TB” and received a response for “tuberculosis.” After searching through 10 pages, the results were still linked to tuberculosis. But when I searched for “define tb in computer terms,” the correct information was displayed immediately. Clearly the humans designing the system response software have to anticipate how people will ask the question and select the information presented based on inference. But how is the selection process accomplished to determine the response display sequence for 100 entries, 1,000 entries, or “tera” entries? It is dependent on the competence and integrity of the code, the software, and the document content.
The internet is unregulated in that the global system does not have in place rules about its usage and content. It permits the open sharing of information, both good and bad. Some national participants may impose their controls to limit the flow of information, thus imposing a boundary on free speech. In our world system this is accepted. But what about the companies running the internet and providing search and content assistance?
In reality this control of information has been happening for a long, long time. Libraries have selected the books and publications made available to users and provided some guidance to find their “stored” information. But both the quantity of access and speed of interaction have increased exponentially. How do you maintain the integrity of the system, its content, and its functioning?
One can draw an analogy and liken the “information” system to a living entity and assert that its structure and rules represent its DNA, its operational coding.
But unlike human DNA that is relatively constant for a given individual, animal or plant, the information “animal” has DNA from a world population. How do you assess the integrity of the information you receive or, perhaps, what really is information integrity? What are the moral and ethical principles of the internet and how are they created? This is evolving rapidly at the risk of violating the moral and ethical principles of humanity. What is the integrity of humanity?