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The pathologies of information – a tale of two systems

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Prologue

California, Jan 2000

“We tend to see the world in terms of entities rather than relationships,” said the professor, “and in doing so, we make a grave error.”

He paused, as though expecting disagreement.

“But relationships are between entities, without entities there can be no relationships,” she countered.

“And that is precisely upside down,” replied the professor. “It is the relationships that define entities and thus dictate how the entire system evolves.   “In evolution it is the relationship between species and environment that is primary, not the species or environment in isolation.”

“But what defines the relationship?” she asked.

“The information exchanged by the entities,” replied the prof. “As Gregory Bateson told us over a quarter century ago, information is a difference which makes a difference; a signal that provokes a response from another entity.   The stream of information between entities defines the relationships between them. It is the entire network of these relationships that determines the overall behaviour of a system, be it a person or a planet. If information turns pathological in some way, the system will show signs of sickness.”

“I’m not sure I understand…”

“You will in time,” he said cryptically.

Sydney, Sep 2020

It started with a general sense of malaise:  tiredness, occasional cramps, and a few other symptoms, each innocuous individually, but when taken together suggested that a visit to the doctor would be in order.

“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” said the doctor, after a brief examination, “but let’s do a few tests and a scan just to make sure.”

A few days later, a call from the doctor’s office. “The doctor would like to see you today,” said the receptionist, “can you come in at 3 pm?”  There was a hint of urgency in her voice.

The doctor got to the point immediately. “I’m sorry, I don’t have good news. There is a mass in your abdomen and the blood tests indicate that it might be malignant. There is also a hint that the disease may have spread to adjacent organs. You must see a surgeon urgently.   I’ve already arranged for you to see one tomorrow.”

Wuhan, Nov 2019

Rumours of a severe “pneumonia of unknown origin” started to circulate in the city in late November.  In a few weeks there were a couple of dozen hospitalized cases, some of them in intensive care.

Despite official assertions that things were “under control”, the proverbial person on the street could sense they were not.

Doctors on the frontline knew this was no ordinary flu, but the authorities held off on making an announcement, ostensibly to avoid panic.

Sydney, Oct 2020

“The operation went well,” said the surgeon, “I removed the primary tumour and a few secondaries that weren’t clearly visible on the scan.”

That was good news, but it also sounded like there was a caveat…

“Given the presence of secondary tumours, there is a high likelihood there are microscopic cancer cells in and around the abdominal cavity,” he continued, “I have taken some biopsies and sent them for microscopic examination.”

“Does that mean the cancer has spread?” she asked.

“It is possible,” he replied, “but let’s wait for the results before jumping to conclusions.”

Wuhan, Dec 2019

As the infection count mounted, it became increasingly obvious, even to the authorities, that this was more than an ordinary flu.  Moreover, as it always does, information (and the sickness) had started to find its way out of Wuhan to the hinterland and beyond.

On the last day of 2019, the Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) about a pneumonia-like flu.

Controls on movements were duly imposed.

Sydney, Nov 2020

The test results confirmed the disease had spread.  The surgeon explained that chemotherapy was the likely next step and referred her to a medical oncologist for further treatment.

The oncologist confirmed the diagnosis and started her on a series of chemotherapy sessions to tackle the microscopic malignancies that had spread to areas distant from the original site.

WHO Head Office, Jan 2020

Following the notification from the Chinese authorities, WHO issued a disease outbreak announcement on 5th January.  The announcement advised travellers to be watchful for symptoms of respiratory distress but did not recommend any restrictions on travel.

Barely a week later, a case was confirmed in Thailand. It was a visitor from Wuhan.

Three weeks on from the Thailand case, there were over 7500 cases worldwide.  Although the vast majority were in China, there were over 80 cases confirmed in 18 other countries.

The virus had bolted.

Sydney, Nov 2020

As her treatment progressed, she often wondered if there was anything she could have done differently.

There wasn’t. The story, though not entirely foretold, had been cast in probabilities that could be traced back to an information pathology that occurred generations ago.

Life is sustained by metabolic processes:  complex chemical reactions that occur at the level of individual cells. An example of a metabolic process is the breakdown of complex food molecules (such as carbohydrates) into simple sugars that the body can use to power various activities (such as your daily swim or run). At the most basic level, metabolic processes are governed by genes, segments of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that serve as templates for proteins which form the raw materials for metabolic processes. Transmitted from parents to children, these biological blueprints are our original inheritance: they carry biologically significant information across generations.

From time to time, genes undergo mutations, unexpected changes in their composition.  These can range from errors in copying (transcription errors) to those caused by external factors such as exposure to radiation or harmful chemicals. Many mutations have no adverse effect because genes with minor differences in chemical composition often end up coding for the same protein (and thus have the same function as the originals). Such mutations do not change the information content of the genes.

 Sometimes, though, a mutation can change the information content (and hence the function) of a gene.  Some of these information errors will be caught and fixed up by corrective mechanisms that function like spellcheckers – i.e. they read the “words” encoded in the gene and compare them to a dictionary, fixing up minor information errors as they go along. Occasionally, however, an error will not be caught by these spellcheckers.  Some of these errors can end up being manifested as abnormal metabolic processes. One such abnormal process is uncontrolled cell division – aka cancer.

A family of well-studied mutations are associated with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which relate to a person’s chance of developing BReast CAncer.  These are tumour suppressor genes – i.e.  they help fix DNA errors that can lead to uncontrolled growth of breast and ovarian tumours.   It is therefore not surprising that certain mutations in these genes can lead to an increased lifetime risk of developing these cancers. Moreover, the loss of tumour suppression mechanisms in affected individuals implies that secondary cancer cells that migrate to other organs have a greater chance of proliferating unchecked.

Sydney, Apr 2020

A friend and I were talking about the virus over Zoom. “There’s the disease, which is a problem,” I said at one point, “and then there’s all the misinformation about it.” This was around the time #toiletpaperapocalypse and other collective insanities were doing the rounds.

“Yes,” he replied, “and it is hard to tell which of the two is a bigger problem: the former requires physical proximity for transmission, the latter can go viral the world over in a matter of minutes. Technology seems far more effective at amplifying stupidity over intelligence.”

Whatever else it may be remembered for, 2020 will undoubtedly go down in our collective memory as the time of COVID. Now, a year on from the first reports of a “pneumonia of unknown origin” from Wuhan, the origins of the disease remain unclear.    The lack of knowledge spawned several conspiracy theories, which seem to gain significantly more traction than reasoned arguments based on facts and evidence.

Why is this so? 

Peddlers of quack cures and those who downplay the dangers of the disease tend frame their messages as certainties; on the other hand, when scientists talk about their findings, they speak in tentative terms, emphasising the uncertainties.  It is the nature of science that findings are provisional and subject to revision. Unfortunately, in times of trouble, however, humans tend to prefer simplistic narratives that reinforce their beliefs over provisional facts based on evidence and reasoning. The latter are difficult for people to accept because they a) are complex and hard to understand, b) lack a compelling narrative, and c) may point to uncomfortable truths.

It is an irony of the human condition that when they matter most, facts and evidence tend to be trumped by beliefs.  This is not new; it has always been so. What is different now is the ease with which information can spread, aided by social media. Moreover, since these new technologies lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, information pathologies propagate at rates that were simply not possible before. The term information metastasis is an appropriate description of this process. It is indeed akin to a cancer.

Epilogue

Sydney, Dec 2020

The medications that coursed through her bloodstream were designed to stop cancer cells from multiplying.  Although the chemicals preferentially affected cancer cells, healthy ones were not entirely unaffected. Consequently, as the treatment progressed, she suffered a number of side effects, both physical and mental.

She saw the connection between her condition and the drama that was unfolding in the wider world. In particular, she understood that response to change provokes further change in a continuing dialogue of stimulus and response. Change, as the cliché goes, is the only constant, but differences between the purposes of the actors in the drama meant there would be no tidy resolution, only ongoing mutual adaptation.

In time she learned to read and respond to the signals from her body, resting when she sensed a wave of fatigue coming or talking to friends when a cloud of depression threatened. In doing so, imperceptibly yet inexorably, her relationship to the world around  her changed. It was neither better nor worse, it was simply different. She knew it had to be so.

–x–

Written by K

December 9, 2020 at 6:44 am

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