Monday, October 5, 2009

A different value: information

I was thinking about the value of information this week. Such thoughts come to me whenever I hear about DVD piracy, or whenever I watch my friend reading academic journals and trying to find a place in which to join that ongoing discourse - articles of scientific thought like turns in a giant and glacially slow conversation. Information has great value in our society. It is sought for. It is defended.

It can mean even mean life or death, as in The Bourne Ultimatum where the critical top secret information about the spy project Bourne was involved in makes people into targets, and the tension finally drops when Pamela Landy is able to get it into a fax machine and send it to the press, where it becomes public.

In our society, information is power. But are there different ways for information to be valued, distributed, etc? Certainly there must be.

Consider the difference between the gossip and the spy.

The spy succeeds by knowing as much as possible, by keeping information secret, by being invisible, and by never telling anyone (except a select few). Even the spy's identity is masked. Spies feel powerful when they know that no one suspects who they are, or what they know, and when what they know gives them power over people, things, or events.

The gossip succeeds by knowing as much as possible, by spreading that information widely, by being highly visible, and by telling everyone they can reach. Gossips feel powerful when they feel they know everything that is going on, that everyone knows who they are but not what they know, and when they have power over people by being the primary source of news in town, or even when they can gain power over events by distributing that information as they wish.

In my Varin world, I have a special servant caste called the Imbati, and one of their functions is that of gleaning and distributing information. They are known as the keepers of secrets, and they use their ability to distribute information to gain power over others. They are not like spies, though, because they are highly visible. Because they work for the nobility, nobles who want to gain information from one another can engage in a high-stakes game of twenty questions, where one noble asks questions of another one's servant, and vice versa. For every question one servant answers, the other must also answer one - so the trick is to know which questions to ask.

The Imbati are contrasted with the undercaste, called the Akrabitti, who are notorious gossips. But for an oppressed group, information may be the only thing of value they possess. A well-connected gossip has the most power in this group, because that person can not only keep everyone up with their friends' news, but also potentially save lives by letting people know who is in trouble or where the police are conducting raids or which stores are giving out free samples that afternoon.

The Akrabitti are terrified of the Imbati, because the Imbati are the group whose behavior is hardest to predict. The Imbati are appalled by the Akrabitti, because they feel that the undercaste treat information with absolutely no respect at all. But unlike with pirated DVDs, the information they take has no commercial value, only quality of life value for the people who learn it.

I was lately asking myself what a society would be like if there were no such thing as private information. It was challenging. How would you go about getting credit for your accomplishments? How would it be possible to make sure, short of some money-redistribution scheme, to make sure people were paid for their work? But partial transparency is actually more difficult than complete transparency, because if you do have complete transparency, then you can trace exactly what it is that everyone is accomplishing. The tricky part is then creating a system where the power to observe isn't reserved for a few who hold all the resources, and that those who do hold the resources aren't too keen on keeping all of them for themselves.

Nancy Kress had an interesting take on this in her book, Probability Moon, where people relied on a collective sense of reality that was updated as quickly as possible by message-senders called "sunflashers." The cool part of this for me was the way that the society could pass information so quickly - by mirror chains - even though they didn't have heavy electronic resources like ours. I had a tougher time with how this collective reality affected people physiologically... but it was still a fascinating take on the distribution of information.

So if you're looking for a way to make your world distinct from ours, the value of information is a fruitful path to consider.


  1. I never thought about information in quite that way before. Very insightful.

  2. Thanks, Jaleh. I'm glad you found it interesting.