Human perception lagging information age

By Takeshi Yoro, Anatomist, Mainichi Shimbun, Friday 26 November 1999

Times are changing at an incredible pace. In many respects, our perception of common wisdom has yet to catch up with the new realities that present themselves to us.

I celebrated my 60th birthday two years ago. The extent to which the world around me has changed is self-evident when I compare my childhood years with the world today.

When I was growing up, there was no television, electric refrigerator or flush toilet. Instead there were air raids and fields of rice and other crops as far as I could see. There were still some buses running on charcoal.

I visited Laos this past July. It was a nostalgic experience for me in that it stirred memories of the world in which I grew up. When I mentioned to the country's deputy prime minister that his residence reminded me of my mother's house in the countryside, he asked me why Japan was able to transform itself so radically over just half a century.

I was stuck for an answer. Was it because the Japanese are industrious or that we use our heads? Certainly, Laotians, too, work diligently and are very intelligent. I am still groping for the answer. I doubt we knew where we were headed when we launched our modernization drive; we simply found ourselves in a radically transfigured world before we really knew what we were getting ourselves into.

How is it, then, that Laos has not become more like Japan? I do not know enough about the country to make an educated guess, but it struck me that the Laotian people exude a sense of happiness that we in Japan have lost. When I made this comment to the deputy prime minister, I received a lecture on how difficult the conditions were for the nation's farmers. Indeed, the people of Laos are very hardworking.

If I were to sum up the changes that have taken place in Japan over the past half-century in a word, I would say the country has urbanized. Laos, on the other hand, is still very rural; it has the fields and hills that lure me back to the Bon festival, when we reclaim our ancestral roots. The rustic simplicity of my mother's house in the countryside has disappeared forever. All of Japan, in a sense, has urbanized. There are television sets and convenience stores wherever you go.

Along with urbanization has come informatization. To me, both phenomena are externalizations of the world inside our brains. Both can be construed as being cerebralizations. The city is no more than a human attempt to physically build what we perceive in our minds. Information is like the electric signals that travel between parts of the brain. Nature, on the other hand, is the world untouched by human ingenuity. That is why it disappears as regions urbanize; a city is where everything is man-made.

What is information? We have yet to really come to grips with what the information age portends. Information is a word that we commonly use in our everyday lives, but not many people have a grasp of its true meaning.

A computer programmer might tell you that information is represented by the number of bytes. But such a definition is not how we use the term in daily life. Science frequently uses it in the everyday sense, though, as when people refer to the genetic information contained in DNA.

The domains of natural science have traditionally been matter and energy. But recently information has joined the list. This was not a conscious decision, however; it more or less creeped up on us. A major concept has found its way into the exact world of science without us being fully aware of it. There are few people, indeed, who recognized this paradigm shift. There is something akin to the way Japan finds itself in a vastly transformed world without the nation having been aware of where we were heading.

One important characteristic of information is that it is static. This might raise a few eyebrows, since people regard information as darting across human beings and other physical entities. But when you think about it, information is always fixed. It can be recorded onto video- or audiocassettes, which can be replayed over and over. We can see the exact same movie as often as we please, and yet we will probably react differently each time we view it. The information contained in the movie has not changed at all. What has changed is your perception of it; it is all in the brain.

Living organisms never find themselves in identical situations. This proves, in a sense, that they are alive. But such is not the case with information. Once it is expressed, it stays still, unchanging.

I recently heard an interesting story of a customer who called in with a complaint about a company's product. This customer was a habitual complainer, and the company did not take pains to address the complaint seriously. The call was transferred from one department to another, and the last employee to deal with the call even verbally abused the customer. This incident was disclosed on a Web site, which received tens of thousands of hits. The company was finally forced to make a formal apology.

The twist here is that the company is a maker of personal computers and tape recorders. It never occurred to them, however, that a customer might actually use a PC and a tape recording to lodge a complaint against it. Words become fixed as soon as they are expressed. This, too, is something that few people realize. Not even those who make information equipment are aware of the true nature of information; it is no wonder, then, that the rest of us have little idea of the true implications of the information age. We have yet to gain a full command of the world we have created with our own minds.