As mentioned in my previous essay, Mythologize yourself, it’s a story economy, we are in the middle of a Wild West of ideas:
Grand narratives and stories who are competing among each other due to the technological advancements of the last decade.
This evolution in the way we communicate, and specifically the scope and scale of mass communication and connectivity, is the main cause behind modern phenoms like Fake News, misinformation, etc.
There is so much information out there, and it flows at such high speed, that we can never reach a consensus on one narrative (which what in the past would be named ‘truth’). We cannot agree on a sweet lie to believe in and move forward collectively.
The reason for nothing being true anymore was that nothing was ever true in the first place. We used to let, knowingly or unknowingly, historians, the media and the state write, push and reinforce said sweet lie which we would later accept as truth.
Today, we all have access to information and there is no real authority on the message anymore, hence all the different stories and narratives competing against each other for a place as the grand narrative.
And in this fierce competition of ideas; sorting, cleaning and curating information sources is paramount to be able to thrive as an individual.
I read an thread written by Mike Elias, where he proposes a quick model to identify and categorize information sources. These three levels of information sources are:
Institutional information is the one given by institutions (hence the name). It is usually for certifying information after the fact. Institutional information was what once held the authority over information and narrative.
In the present, they have lost the sole authority. Their traditional way of stating the obvious, once obvious has already occurred, is too slow, and other information sources beat it to the race.
Credible/Useful information comes from credible individuals who are independent from institutional narratives. These are social media influencers of some sort, independent journalists, bloggers, domain experts, etc.
Exploratory information comprises the sources which are, in words of Mike, “hidden in a vast stew of bullshit”. You know, the usual 4Chan screenshots that predict outcomes of events due to “insider sources” and end up becoming true.
Mike continues the thread on how the differences between the information sources are useful to understand and to be able to make decisions in time of, and in his words, crisis or wartime. I suggest you give it a read.
The reason for this email is that I like Mike’s mental model on the different levels of information sources, and in some way it has connected some ideas I had in mind.
When the pandemic hit and countries were starting a lockdown, in my country there was still a conversation about masks being useful or not (which is still going on eight months later), whereas vetted and curated Twitter accounts I follow were already discussing that vitamin D deficiency likely has a huge part in it.
When there were food shortages at supermarkets (which ended up being a one- or two-day thing), I had already bought a month’s worth supply of food. I did not set foot inside a supermarket in the months of March and April.
All thanks to people in the Credible/Useful information level, who, for example, had already made a few decision making trees as to why there was no risk at all in buying a month worth’s supply of food, yet the upside was unlimited in case of a real shortage.
Making decisions is easy when you have the right information.
However, sometimes decisions need to be made in absence of complete information. One thing I have learnt during the pandemic and lockdowns is that risk-management and decision making in times of uncertainty need a different approach.
Traditional risk-management and decision making is based on optimization of results. The decision with the largest ROI according to our probabilistic calculations will usually be the one made.
However, these decisions presume that there is complete information on the problem at hand.
When uncertainty reigns, it does so precisely because of the lack of complete information. Here is where heuristics, mental models and rules of thumb come in handy. And here is where Mike’s mental model fits.
Information sources from level three, Exploratory information, are valuable for “surprise reduction”. We part from a starting point where nobody has any idea of what is going on, and we familiarize ourselves with different hypotheses so we can prepare for uncertainty.
These hypotheses should start from worst possible scenarios. No matter how crazy and unlikely they may sound. We can then analyze each one and evaluate how prepared are we for them, how can we prepare better, and how we can minimize any impact on us.
As mentioned above, I will repeat that the approach to decision making and preparedness in uncertainty is different.
Rather than optimizing for the best result possible, we must think about the worst possible scenarios, and work on minimizing their possible impact on us in case they become true.
Will our decision-making lead to the optimum outcome once uncertainty becomes certain? Probably not.
But in uncertainty, it’s not about winning. It’s about not losing and staying in the game.
Here is where our consideration, selection and curation of information becomes important. If we wait for credited, peer-reviewed and “official” information, it will almost always be too late (without sounding dramatic).
Take, for example, the vitamin D deficiency being linked to the current pandemic. Twitter accounts were already discussing this back in February, and only now, in November, there are some “official” news mentioning this idea.
Many of us read the idea in February, and you know what we did? We did not wait for it to become “officially” true.
Some started exercising outdoors and tanning, others started vitamin D supplementation, others started eating more eggs to make sure their bodies could process vitamin D, etc.
Any heuristic, mental map, decision tree or rule of thumb indicates it’s an excellent plan of action to take. If vitamin D deficiency is not correlated, you spent $10 on supplements, ate healthier and exercised while getting fresh air.
Whereas if the deficiency is rightly correlated with the severity of the illness, you effectively reduced your exposure to a virus which has locked down all countries in the world.
In a world with endless information sources, it is paramount that we choose the best. These three levels of information are out there. We all have access to them.
What separates a good decision making, risk-management and preparedness for uncertainty is how we view each level of information, our personal common sense and our trust or mistrust on authority.
I understand that level one, Institutional information, will always be slower than the rest. No politician, public figure or policy maker will run the risk of losing their jobs over making a mistake in what they say. They have everything to lose, which is why they will always be last at certifying any information.
An anon Twitter account has nothing to lose, something which has been a main point of critique against them. But anons also have nothing to gain. An anon can be wrong, but a selected few are usually right more often than not.
Hidden from personal responsibility, they can afford to put out there their information and hypotheses, which can end up being proven right months or years later.
Of course, not all information in level two or three is trustworthy. I do believe that there is an actual problem of misinformation and fake news going on. But here is where our common sense, decision making process, personal heuristics and rules of thumb apply.
Personally, most of my decision-making process is focused on risk management in conditions of certainty. I do, in fact, spend most of my time trying to optimize as much as I can.
However, I also dedicate a certain amount of time for preparing for decision-making under uncertainty.
When times become uncertain, it is good to switch forms of thinking and to operate in defensive mode if needed. The best way to start preparing is to distinguish between the different sources of information, and to curate as best as you can.
In my opinion, decision-making should include various models and frameworks for different scenarios. Different tools in a toolbox.
Spend most time operating in conditions of certainty and optimizing, and a small amount of time operating in conditions of uncertainty and hedging to reduce risk in end-of-the-world scenarios.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like nails.
PS: next email, on Cyberwarfare and how it impacts each one of us, will be exclusive for my premium subscribers. You can join the premium newsletter and not miss it by clicking the button below!