Throughout the Holocene, societies developed additional layers of administration and more information-rich instruments for managing and recording transactions and events as they grew in population and territory

(Shin, et al. 2020. Scale and information-processing thresholds in Holocene social evolution)

When a society hits this information threshold, it stops functioning until it can invent new ways to sense make with the new abundance of information. If they don’t pull that transition off, they die.

The attention economy is a symptom human society hitting this information scaling threshold. Philosopher Paul Tillich posits that when social sensemaking fails to keep up with reality, we experience it as a kind of mass neurosis. Everybody has a crisis of meaning at the same time. Life stops making sense.

We’ve tried to cope through Dunbar-scale spaces and the cozy web

More in Gordon Brander’s Thinking Together

Researcher Simon DeDeo considers it a phase transition in human culture, dividing history into three eras:

  • The premodern/archaic era, when most information was generated by non-human phenomena like seasons, weather, drought, flood, hail, lightning. “The gods”.
  • The modern/postmodern era, when most information was broadcast by a small number of information “sellers”, and consumed by a large number of information “buyers”.
  • The user-generated content era, where most information is produced/consumed by users, in a tight feedback loop between attention allocation and content production/consumption.

As We May Think

The 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush

“The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

He stresses, as many of us believe today, that mechanization — or, algorithms in the contemporary equivalent — will never be a proper substitute for human judgment and creative thought in the filtration process:

Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.