Information, Cognition, and Social Evolution

The Prospects of an Enduring Democracy

The word democracy can be said to be both sacred and irrelevant; the former because it conjures up images of populist involvement, fair play, anti-tyrannical politics and equality, the latter because it only has meaning to the extent that the final, collective arbiter – the people – are capable of self-governance. Democracy is not a whimsical term, nor has it been a historical given. From the outset there was considerable skepticism on whether the Great American experiment would work. The French philosopher Voltaire believed such a populist system could only be sustained in small enclaves, that with social expansion, the alienation and sub-groupings resulting from geographically-driven diversity in mores, habits and values would lead to chaos.1

Even Thomas Jefferson seemed to have misgivings about the capacity of America to endure. He too had misgivings about geographic, ethnic and cultural expansion, which was rather ironic given his purchase of the Louisiana Territory. In 1816 he discussed the concept of government “purity” which he defined as the degree of closeness between politicians and the people. His ideal – which he termed a “government of first grade purity” was one in which citizens enjoyed direct and frequent contact with their representatives, were well-informed about issues and thus were able to influence the decisions of representatives proactively. Realizing that America’s population would expand rapidly, Jefferson came to accept that the USA would have to settle for a government of “third grade purity,” whereby people would have to substitute trust for information and proactive influence.2

This was not a trivial matter to either Voltaire or Jefferson. Each felt that democracy could only work if people were informed and reasonable enough to themselves vote wisely. Since there was no compulsory public education during the lives of either man, the odds on an average citizen being able to read relevant material on policy would have been quite low, even if made available.

The message both men were trying to convey – and one stated by John Adams3 and others – was that democracy is a fragile thing, that reliance on the masses to direct the functions of government can be a rather tentative process. That, of course, is what led General Benjamin Lincoln to opine that only landowners (with a heavy investment in governmental revenues and policy) should be allowed to vote. It is what led to the formation of the US Senate (an ostensibly enlightened body that would insert higher reasoning skills into the process should the House and/or the public wax foolish) and to formation of the Electoral College.

Arguably, the single most salient factor implied in their writings was human nature. The question was (and remains) whether any democratic state can sustain itself, given the vicissitudes, limitations and influences on human behavior, cognition and emotion.

Criteria

That brings us to a discussion of the human elements needed to sustain a democratic society. There are a number of ways to approach this issue. One would be to focus on the need for a moral consensus influential enough to regulate behavior and maintain a duty of due care; i.e.,  fundamental feature of common law involving a broad societal agreement to abstain from harming others by intent or neglect. Another would espouse the importance of attaining a cultural frame of reference, so that each generation would be able to view themselves in a temporo-cultural context and come to know whether their society has progressed, regressed, evolved, led to upward mobility etc. That would include an awareness of the impact of events over time so people could truly recognize the traumas and halcyon days that define national experience. Finally, there would be some consideration of cultural phenomena such as music, art, literature, political trends, athletics – all those things cherished by the Ancient Greeks. Art would be particularly important since it is proof of free expression, of an informed, educated public with an aesthetic sense and it also demonstrates that potentially destructive urges have been channeled into pro-social outlets.

Science and Social Evolution

Absorbing all the above elements can be a daunting task, especially as individual and family lives becomes so complex as to supplant national concerns. Yet there is a way to address this issue. It is to be found in a scientific maxim known as Information Theory.

With respect to its impact on social evolution, Information Theory distinguishes between terms like “input,” “exposure,” and “media” and actual information. The latter is defined as a reduction of uncertainty. That means that some salient, distinctive code must emerge from a mass of noise to be viewed as information. The amount of information is measured in bits – each distinctive one representing a kind of code teased out of a mass.4 As an example; an answer to the question: Name the American president who helped establish the League of Nations… would entail one bit of information, since the only possible answer would be Woodrow Wilson. On the other hand, the question: Name the president who attended an Ivy League School, responded with force to a perceived military threat and was a sports enthusiast would entail at least three bits — John Kennedy, George Bush and Barack Obama.

Information Theory features several parameters. For instance, the larger the initial mass of noise or input the greater the amount of information attained with the emergence of a code or resolution because a larger amount of noise (undistinguished elements) equals a larger amount of uncertainty. With more initial uncertainty a greater reduction in uncertainty will result from encoding. As another example; finding your car in fifty space parking lot after a temporary memory lapse would comprise less information that finding a needle in a haystack – assuming the stack was a large one.

Human Nature and the Bit

The mind of a citizen operates according to Information Theory principles and that has bearing on social evolution, particularly in a democracy. For those minds to function optimally; i.e., according to the reasonable person standard, requires certain conditions. The most prominent being that the stimulus environment in the USA must lend itself to clear resolutions, with respect to moral values, politics, event impact, historical frame of reference and cultural itself.

The question then becomes: What conditions must exist for those trends to prevail? First, resolutions must be specific and clear. From a morass of inputs there must be the capacity to discerning readily what is right vs. wrong, civil vs unacceptable, artistic vs offensive, impactful vs. trivial. In other words a democratic society operates through the prism of human cognition and will either evolve or devolve in that context.

The Current Info-Climate

In a sense, it could be argued that he USA is heading in a devolutionary path, not because of liberal or conservative thought or due to Godlessness or fanatical religious adherence but because we might have reached the point where the flow of information is too rapid, voluminous and diverse to be encoded. It does not lend itself to resolution, which leads to cognitive and emotional lassitude within the populace. Such a condition could reach a point where young people growing up in this environment could become functionally unaware of what’s going on around them. In other words they might have a fleeting, barebones-associative recognition of events but be unable to adequately feel or interpret them.

Another aspect of information is also in play with regard to this question. Like money, information, can incur inflation. The more available it is, the less its value. As the amount of input increases, not only in volume but in terms of new gadgets, sources and voices the less meaningful it becomes until such time as a tendency toward societal forgetfulness and/or accompanied by apathy occurs. Events that might have impact, lead to personal growth, collective cultural memories, the creation of moral standards and national pride become fleeting, un-encoded and psychologically irrelevant and the citizen ends up with no sense of generation, time or place. He lives, he dies, and no signposts are available to mark the journey.

Conversely, a shortage of inputs makes those inputs more valuable, more esthetically and emotionally attractive to observers, and consequently more memorable. Ironically, a low level of input makes the human animal hungrier for discovery and indeed more educable. In such conditions, social mores, values, cultural staples of all kinds can more readily guide and /or channel human behavior.

The media explosion seen in America and around the world today might well be counterproductive with regard to the cognitive sustenance and enlightenment of the people. This is not an argument for censorship of specific ideas. It is a concern about the sheer volume of input on mind, belief, actions and emotions. Child developmental theorist Jean Piaget discovered that human cognitive growth requires the establishment of stable schemes; fixed ideas in mind that are resilient enough to invoke comparisons and reject or assimilate new inputs in terms of its prior parameters (1973).

Psycho-physiologist D.E. Berlyne wrote similarly that cognitive precursors to pleasure and creativity depend on fixed ideas with which new inputs can be compared, reworked or eschewed.5,6 A heavy and rapid input climate is somewhat antithetical to that process, thus dampens cognition. Fleeting inputs disallow time to process and consolidate values – one day a behavior pattern is viewed as socially unacceptable, the next (having been supported by celebrity-adherents) it becomes okay.

Through it all, ignorance and casuistry begin to infiltrate society. The people get overloaded. They see and hear more but know and feel less. They become increasingly more noise-distracted in their understanding of the world around them. Young students process inputs from various technological sources daily until such time as classroom lessons become less centrally important; just one strand of hay in the stack, indistinguishable from a plethora of meaningless signals arising from amidst an epoch of info-lation. Predictably, boredom and mental fatigue set in. as the young people take life on the fly. At that point the question then becomes whether the reasonable, well-informed person standard on which democracy hangs its hat is still reliable

While at face value this might sound like nothing more than a hackneyed critique of the youth culture by an oldster there is data to support such musings. A study by the Kaiser Foundation showed that American students spend an average of from 7-10 hours a day using electronic devices,7 that there was a high correlation between number of hours of use and poor grades in school.8

If it were simply a case of more time being devoted to electronic gadgets and less time to academics the solution might be simple – reduce the time spent on the former. However, there is also the question of input volume and its effect on the decision making capacities of the citizenry. Inputs are not just a cognitive experience. They are emotional as well. When input is fleeting, rapid, voluminous and uncoded (i.e., low on societal impact due to its blend with myriad other inputs) it changes the temperament, indeed the psyche of the nation.

Society and the Psyche

Beyond the notion that cognitive development requires the acquisition of stable, lasting schemes9,10 is the Freudian description of ego and superego development.11 Both require time and experiential constancy to consolidate. Lack of such a stable info-climate could result in a generation of introspectively deficient young people who lack the regulatory skills to self-monitor, self-restrain, self-critique and self regulate. Lacking such inner resources, they might become excessively dependent on outside stimuli – needing “positive reinforcement’ to carry out even basic responsibilities, becoming hyper-socialized to the point where talking, texting, and hanging with friends take precedence over self-development, initiative, creativity and achievement.

Is technology (more accurately technologically facilitated input-volume), responsible for weight problems, apathy, poor academic achievement and lack of chagrin arguably seen in many of today’s youth? While some research tends to support those conclusions12 other factors might be at work. However, there is a strong correlation between the advent and proliferation of computer technology in American society and a decline in academic performance, personal responsibility, independence and initiative and such outcomes can and have been precursors to social decline.

Unfortunately the solution is less clearly defined than the problem. At face value the nation and its youth would benefit from less input. They’d have time to ponder, dream and self-actualize. Yet the carrying out of such a process seems unlikely given both entrenched habits/addictions and the constitutional premise of free expression (an extremely powerful combination). Parents could certainly limit time spent on electronic gadgets but that wouldn’t solve the problem of having innumerable TV cable stations, Internet news and entertainment outlets and texting mini-technologies that not only dominate the psychic landscape but also fuel the American economy.

It does seem evident that while all democratic societies must espouse freedom of expression, it is virtually impossible to sustain a viable nation without some level of indoctrination. In other words, there must be a core of skills and ethical premises that are encoded, felt and acted on by young and old. That includes taboos and the threat of that old strand-by, social ostracism, in response to outrageous behavior.

At face value that might seem to argue for teaching religious values in school. Obviously the constitutional tenet of separation of church and state prohibits that. The fact that the teaching of religion is prohibited in public schools would seem reasonable if not for the fact that students are not taught about law or ethics either. As a result moral values are not encoded in any sense, other than through families, which themselves operate within the same input climate as their children and the rest of society.

The constitutional framers developed a superb system of laws and a process by which laws could be amended to solve future problems in American society. Unfortunately the input glut now impinging on America youth and the potentially dismal future that portends for the USA is a problem that might turn out to be unsolvable in the final analysis.

  1. Woolf, H.I. (1924) The Philosophical Dictionary: Voltaire. New York, Knopf. []
  2. Jefferson on “Purity” of Governmental forms. Jefferson expounded on this topic in a letter to Isaac Tiffany. August 26, 1816 from Monticello. Extracted from Teaching American History.org. []
  3. Notes on John Adams. Adams wrote a tome entitled A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America in 1778. He wrote in favor of republican government ideals but also opined that such a form of government could result in deleterious levels of conflict among opposing parties, thus requiring a strong central government to mediate between and among these factions. His support of this federalist premise –which back then referred to advocates of strong central government rather than the modern, arguably inaccurate interpretation of local/state-control, led to charges of his being a monarchist. []
  4. Cover, T.M. & Thomas, JA. (1991) Elements of Information Theory. First Edition. New York, Wiley – Interscience. []
  5. Berlyne, DE. (1971) Aesthetics and Psychobiology. New York Appleton-Century Crofts. []
  6. Berlyne, DE. (1960) Conflict, Arousal an Curiosity. New York, McGraw-Hill. []
  7. CBC News/Health study in 2007 indicated that 1/3 of population was obese and that those who spent 21 or more hours using electronic media were twice as likely to be obese. []
  8. Nusca, A. (2008) Kaiser Family Foundation. Study revealed that American youth aged 8-18 spent from 7-10 hours a day using electronic media devices and subjects in that 47 % of subject in that group attained grades at or below C in school – in contrast to the mere 21 % who spent less than 3 hrs per day and attained similar grades. []
  9. Piaget, J, & Inhelder, B. (1973) Memory and Intelligence. London. Routledge and Kegan Paul. []
  10. Branco, J.C. & Lourenco, O (2004) Cognitive and Linguistic Aspects in 5-6 years olds’ class inclusion reasoning. Psicologia Educacao Cultura 8 (2) 427-445. []
  11. Freud, S. (1923) The Ego and the Id. W. Norton & Co. []
  12. Forgione, P (1998) Study Conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics under the title: Center for Educational Performance and Empower American Achievement in the USA. []

MS Clinical Psychology, Practitioner in Neuro psychology, Clinical and Educational fields. Former Prof of Psychology NH University System, Author of several books and many articles, president of Filmmaking company Media Milestones. Read other articles by Robert.