We are prisoners of the Information Age

Jul 22, 2015

- By Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner
On Board the Trans-Canada (Somewhere in Northern Alberta)

Dear Diary,

"The train will stop for 20 minutes to take on water," said a voice over the loudspeaker.

We had been rolling for a day and a half. It would be nice to get out and stretch our legs. And so, we climbed down and wandered around town. In about 10 minutes, we had seen all there was to see - just a few cheap houses, a convenience store, a post office, and a place that billed itself as the "Chateau du Nord" - a ramshackle blue house, built of wood, which advertised itself as a place for 'burgers and shakes.' It was closed. Everything was closed.

We got back on the train and headed to the dining car.

Stocks fell yesterday. The news from the tech sector is bad, with IBM sales down for the 13th quarter and Microsoft posting its largest quarterly loss ever. Apple shares lost $50 billion of their value - its biggest ever. The Dow lost 181 points.

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Taking a long ride on a passenger train must be like an ocean cruise. The difference is that we look at land, not water. Once the train left the station in Toronto, the trip became very agreeable. The staff is friendly and competent. The accommodations are comfortable.

We read. We write. We eat. We drink. We settle down for days of quiet reflection - often out of cellphone range. And when we look out our window, we see trees and rocks. Hills. Rivers. Lakes. And a few shabby houses. Canada's north - le Grand Nord, the French call it - is amazingly empty. Mostly, what we see are trees. Maple. Birch. Spruce. Pine. The forests of Northern Ontario seem to have no end.

Heading north by northwest, the train rounded Lake Huron and then turned west. It has been lumbering and trundling west ever since, occasionally pulling off onto a sidling to let a freight train go by.

Our fellow travelers are a mixed crew. One group - which includes a Chinese woman - speaks Spanish. One of the Spanish speakers - from Lima, Peru - ducked our question what we asked what he was up to. But he asked our opinion on America's economic recovery.

"What recovery," we replied?

Several families - apparently on vacation - speak Quebecois, French with a heavy New World accent. A tall, elegant African woman is a mystery. There are a few lost souls. And one retired man won't stop talking; the other passengers are learning to avoid him.

At the upper end - which is at the very back of the train - are a few retired couples from south of the 49th parallel. By no means statistically significant, half of these high-end customers come from the Washington, DC area and have earned their money from the Pentagon. Most have some reason to go to Vancouver, as we do, and thought the train would be an interesting way to get there.

Yesterday, we joined them to celebrate an 80th birthday. They form a jolly group - joking, laughing. Generally, our fellow voyagers seem to enjoy each other's company and spend much of their time together in the club car.

One of the books we brought with us to contemplate was George Gilder's "Knowledge and Power." We made fun of Gilder years ago in one or our own books. He had gotten a little moonstruck in the lunatic glow of dot.com boom in the late '90s. Like many of that era, he came to believe that information is more important than matter. And maybe it is in some sense, but never have we sprained an ankle by stepping on an idea. And when 6 o'clock comes, we do not sit down and uncork a thought.

In the late '90s, more and cheaper information was thought to be the ticket to faster growth. Gilder believes that information trumps physics, removing the age old constraints - time, energy, resources - that hold back progress.

"In the beginning was the word," he writes, echoing an earlier bestseller. The word is what makes the thing, not the other way around, he points out.

But what word? Most of the words we hear are noise. Most of the ideas they convey are superficial piffle. They don't create wealth or beauty. They get in the way; they confuse; they fill up the cupboards and trash bags of the mind...and then, they must be dumped somewhere, blemishing our mental landscape, like the slagheaps of the Industrial Age, for many years.

And since we are now more than half a century since Claude Shannon discovered the principles of information theory...and more than 20 years since the internet revolution began, we look around and wonder: where's the beef?

You can get any word you want on the internet - for free. But we don't see how they make us better off. We don't see wealth or prosperity - except in the industries that own the pipes through which these words are transmitted. Google, Apple, and Facebook are building new mega-rich campuses to celebrate their success. But the average man in America saw his earnings peak out in the '70s. Now he can distract himself from his misery with cheap entertainment from Silicon Valley. But he can't support a family.

All we see are time-wasters. Most people use the new devices for entertainment; they become less productive thanks to the time they spend browsing on dating sites or talking to their refrigerators.

We work with words and ideas. The electronic media - with so many ideas and so much information so readily available -- has turned us into miners rushing to Sutter's Mill. We have to dig into every hillside, crack open ever rock, and send every grain of river- bottom sand through our sluice. We don't know where the gold is; it could be anywhere.

The I-phone sends more and more money to Apple. To us it brings more information - to be processed, to be studied, to be stuck in some mental file...thence forgotten...unfindable forever.

Standing in line...in an elevator...in a taxi...waiting for dinner - no minute is spared...neither in thought nor reflection. Instead, every message demands attention...immediately! Yes? No? What do you think? What should you think? Is this important or more time-wasting drivel?

Why not just turn the damn I-phone off? Why not dispense with the additional information? Why not 'just say no' to any more ideas?

The answer is simple and obvious: we are now prisoners of the Information Age. We can't say 'no' because we don't know what we are saying no to. Are we saying 'no' to more noise? Or to 'The Word?'

Ah, yes, that is where we have come to. Now that information is available, we can't resist it. And yet, judged by US GDP, wages, or our own experience, it is a dud.

Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.

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