Becoming an Information Billionaire

And avoiding the pitfalls of your newfound riches

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Photo by Nawalescape on Pixabay

Congratulations: You’ve won the lottery!

Not the money kind, unfortunately. But you now have access to another resource that can unlock opportunities and power: information. You can enjoy a wealth of knowledge incomparable even to royalty in ages past. From the momentous to the mundane, if a question ever pops into your head, a pocket-sized device can give you at least one answer within seconds.

Yet winning the lottery can have its downsides; psychologists even study mental health problems associated with “sudden wealth syndrome.” (Mo’ money, mo’ problems.) People with unexpected riches may not know how to handle that new scale of finances wisely, and all of us find ourselves dealing with information abundance at a scale no one has ever had to manage before. As with a monetary fortune, we could use some assistants and accountants to help us sort things out.

Except many of us have already hired assistants, whether we realize it or not. In the information economy, we select our staff implicitly by the sources we look to for help navigating a surplus of news. We rarely learn about big events and issues firsthand. We constantly, unconsciously make decisions about who we trust and what we accept as truth through simple taps and clicks. Our view of the world is not only our own, but a montage of perspectives from people we listen to or imitate.

And that’s okay! People may rightly encourage you to “think for yourself,” but in truth we all outsource at least some of our thinking. That collaboration is part of what makes us human and helps each of us succeed: we are all “standing on the shoulders of giants.” And despite the confidence of some “thought leaders,” no one has life all figured out! The key is not whether you can outdo everyone else by finding the truth all on your own, but how you go about choosing your sources and interpreting what you observe.

This matters because while people use money to purchase things, people use information to prove ideas — and they can use both against you to fraudulent ends. If you have financial riches, people may try to convince you to spend it on scams. With access to information riches, people may try to convince you to believe deceptive theories. One way they do this takes advantage of ideas that naturally makes sense to us but do not actually reflect reality.

For example, suppose you attended a party with 22 other random people you didn’t know. As you mingle with the guests, someone starts asking everyone about their birthdays. To your surprise, you soon discover that two of the people attending have the exact same birthday! What are the odds?

In fact, the odds are just above 50%, so slightly more likely than not. (With 50 people invited, the probability goes up to about 97%!) This result, known as the birthday paradox, illustrates how our intuition can lead us astray. To be fair, our instinctive guesses about how the world works can often be right and serve us well in day-to-day living, but some contexts can also amplify their shortcomings in dangerous ways.

And with an excess of information, the odds for all sorts of patterns become much higher than we might think. Given enough information, you can always find at least some regularities, even in random data. Or as one mathematician put it: “Complete disorder is impossible.” Considering the scale of data points now available on any topic, if you look for a pattern, you are sure to find one.

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Left image from Reddit, right image from xkcd (CC BY-NC 2.5). See also Spurious Correlations for more humorous examples of accidental patterns.

Of course, sometimes surprising patterns are real, so how do you sort the signal from the noise? And how do you choose who to trust when evaluating supposed patterns? That process may be difficult, but it is not impossible: people have developed tools and techniques for dealing with shortcomings in how we understand the world and the ways we inadvertently trick ourselves. Just as budgeting and financial planning can help you spend money wisely, these cognitive resources help you consume information wisely. Expounding on them would make this post much longer, but you can (of course!) find plenty of information about them online, such as The Verge’s guide to fighting misinformation.

While this filtering does take time and energy, your response to information abundance has a real impact on how you see the world and how you treat others. For example, the more you accept patterns at face value revealing hidden forces and plots without critically evaluating them, the more you run the risk of at least three dangerous tendencies:

  • Othering: The world is not divided between monsters and good people. But if we only look at someone through a particular lens, we may begin to think they are somehow fundamentally different from us. We begin to see people we oppose purely as agents of evil. Yet even when they commit many evil acts, this simplistic framing can prevent us from understanding how they ended up there, which helps us prevent others from following a similar path. Perhaps more importantly, dehumanizing them allows us to excuse a whole range of unjust actions in response. All of us are capable of more evil than we might want to think, a realization that should lead us to humility, not paranoia.
  • Overlooking: Focusing on the sensational can distract us from the more relevant mundane. If a cabal of powerful celebrities runs a child trafficking ring, few would question the merits of rescuing its targets. For most of us, though, we are far more likely to encounter victims of child abuse in our own communities, and at the hands of people those children already know. Large-scale, coordinated plots may get more attention, but individual, unconnected injustices can add up to a much broader impact, despite being harder to recognize. We can certainly confront multiple injustices at once, but we cannot let our desire to be part of a larger story disconnect us from the stories happening right in front of us.
  • Over-interpreting: If you start finding patterns even in the random, you start seeing patterns everywhere. When we confront chaos in our lives, we naturally resist the feeling that we are not in control. Discovering an apparent pattern can provide a comforting explanation for our distress — a solution we may then try to apply to other dilemmas. Simpler, unguided explanations are not only less interesting, but less satisfying. If we can find a deeper, hidden meaning behind some events, that reasonably raises questions on whether we can apply such skills to all events. The more receptive we become to supposed patterns, the more potential for self-deception.

I am grateful to live in a time with such widespread access to information; on the whole, that remains a significant advantage. But like it or not, it also brings significant responsibility, especially in the face of new uncertainties confronting all of us right now. Information can be a wonderful gift — just remember to use it wisely.

An analytical romantic. I help people understand how they fit into the world.

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