This is an adaptation of Networking Diseases: speculations towards the development of cures and preventive measures (Transnational Associations, 30, 1978). As argued there, despite widespread exposure to organizations and organizational systems in various states of growth, health and decay, it would appear that there is no convenient checklist of the malfunctions to which organizations are subject. The matter is of course normally broached through the various kinds of management problem, and the measures required to "get an ailing organization on its feet again". But the range of possible malfunctions is not identified as such, particularly for the kinds of structures -- like networks -- which are supposed neither to require, nor to lend themselves to, management.
In a knowledge society, there is a related need to better understand the "information diseases" to which individuals themselves are vulnerable within the networks in which they variously participate, or as they interact with their sources of information -- or indeed as they themselves act as producers of information.
In order to focus thinking more clearly on the information malfunctions to which individuals and networks may be subject, some guidelines are required to provoke recognition of unforeseen possibilities which might otherwise go unrecognized. In passing one may note the effort by Michael Haas (Types of asymmetry in social and political systems, 1967, see Table 1) to identify the different kinds of "asymmetry" to which systems may be subject. However he defines asymmetry as "an attribute of a system which may vary over time, space, and other such dimensions". Such asymmetry may or may not be viewed as associated with some kind of malfunction.
For a deliberately humorous attempt to identify how systems fail, a study of "systemantics " merits attention (John Gall. Systemantics; how systems work and especially how they fail, 1977). The humour does not detract from an underlying profundity. An attempt to categorize different kinds of system problems also throws some light on the matter.
In commentary on the collective significance of the "world problems" profiled in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1976/1994), one suggested metaphor was to consider them as disorders and diseases (Problem metaphors):
Problems may be considered to be in some way the social equivalent of foreign bodies circulating in the human bloodstream (requiring the action of antibodies), or of different diseases affecting the different structures and processes of the human body. In the light of this metaphor the editorial process can be viewed as an exercise in social pathology, an effort to identify the range of ills to which the human environment is subject. To some extent the product therefore has a function analogous to that of the WHO International Classification of Diseases or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (of the American Psychiatric Association).
This disease metaphor is useful because of its familiarity. It has a degree of legitimacy through the biochemical information that is recognized as vital to the healthy functioning of a body. This perspective also has recognized legitimacy through understanding of cybernetic control systems. These perspectives appear somewhat distant from understandings of individuals as agents processing information in an information society and, by extension, in a universe of knowledge. With regard to notions of a universe of information, a helpful overview is provided in Future Feeder; Journal of Architecture and Information (2005, 1) states:
Much of physics and cosmology now thinks of information as ranking with matter and energy as a fundamental property of the universe. With this ranking comes the notion that information can be transformed (including to and from matter and energy) but it cannot be destroyed...
However it is not the purpose of this discussion to focus initially on such implications. Such more general understandings of information are discussed in a closing section on "Knowledge diseases" and "Wisdom diseases". A more general focus also suggests that this exploration might have focused on "memetic disorders" and "information disorders" rather than relying on the disease metaphor.
"Information diseases": There currently appears to be little investigation of individual malfunctions under this term. It can of course be argued that most diseases are effectively due to inappropriate generation and dissemination of information. This is especially clear in relation to metabolic processes and any underlying genetic factors. To the extent that diseases arise from problematic operation of inappropriate operation of hormones or the nervous system, they can be understood as information diseases.
However such information diseases might be best understood as of an unconscious nature. Of greater interest here are the information diseases associated with more conscious exposure to information in an information-based (knowledge) society and the nature of the interaction with it. What societal diseases might the media be said to engender and to sustain?
"Information system diseases": The omnipresence of computer-enabled "information systems", and their vital role in the emerging knowledge society, suggests that the problems that may undermine the healthy operation of of such systems could highlight an array of possibilities through which symptoms of systemic dysfunctionality could be detected in individuals and their networks. The dependence on such information systems suggests that information system dysfunction may be better understood in that context -- especially given the resources allocated to their maintenance and upgrading to achieve improved ("healthier" and more "robust") performance.
The requirements for the "integrity of an information system" would presumably be seen as analogous to those of the human body.
The development of the internet has of course resulted in the concept of a computer virus being widely adopted as a means of articulating the dysfunctional behaviours of a particular range of program codes. The resources devoted to creating, detecting and neutralizing or removing such viruses -- and the degree of threat they pose to information systems -- suggests that they may offer many insights into the nature of analogous viruses in the knowledge system, whether termed cultural or memetic viruses.
"Memetic diseases": Few diseases seem to be recognized under this term -- although the terms "memetic viruses" and "viruses of the mind" are now used. However George van Driem (Languages of the Himalayas: an ethnolinguistic handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region containing an introduction to the symbiotic theory of language, 2001) provides an extensive analysis, notably citing the work of Richard Dawkins in describing religions as cultural viruses. He notes that genetic information is what we call nature, and extra-genetic or memetic information is what we call culture. He argues:
By epistemological criteria, religions are to be diagnosed as diseases of the mind. The basic structure of self-referential belief systems is simple and repetitive and incorporates vicious circles of false reasoning....Whereas crazes are memetic viruses, religions are more complex pathogenic organisms, and most can boast a long history of deleterious effects on human... (p. 102)
Though one of the oldest linguistically mediated memetic diseases, religions in the narrow sense are but one form of religious thinking. Religion in the broader sense covers any parasitic memorable constellation of unfounded beliefs, whether the cultural viruses in question are malevolent political ideologies, a trendy linguistic formalism, a tyrannical intellectual fashion or even a benign commensal constellation without any dramatically deleterious properties such as astrology.... belief systems like astrology, Freudian psychoanalysis and generative linguistics are not the only type of memetic construct....The potential danger and basic psychopathology of religious mêmes cannot be underestimated and vividly illustrate that memetic replication, in principle, operates independently of the selective advantage and genetic fitness of the host organism (p. 111)
James A. Donald offers the insight that:
Christianity is a memetic disease, as vaccina is a viral disease. Vaccina protects one against a far more serious viral disease, and Christianity protects one against several far more serious memetic diseases.
who argues elsewhere that:
Climate science is just one part of a broader problem, the real problem being belief systems, memetic diseases, that spread by coercive means - climate science is just one part of political correctness, and political correctness is part of the same problem as Islam.
Science Related Memetic Disorder (SRMD) is a memetic disease which susceptible persons can both catch and transmit. SRMD appears to be a naturally-occurring memetic disorder which spreads via fringe science books and half-baked online rantings. A susceptible person - usually an engineer or scientist whose theories have been snubbed by his professional peers - who reads one of these rants can catch SRMD. Once a person has been infected with the SRMD meme complex, he or she will begin to construct a scientific theory and will go to any length to prove it and to show everyone who disregarded his work that his theory is correct. Persons infected with SRMD, who are colloquially called "mad scientists," will often engage in illegal or hazardous actions to further their goals.
One blog argued in 2007 that:
There are also memetic diseases, such as racism, torture, and Tom Cruise movies. These diseases spread memetically through populations, mostly using social programming and lots of repetition. Then there are diseases that have genetic and memetic components. (Strictly speaking, all memetic diseases occupy the genetic realm, since we are usually talking about the memes that infect the brain of the human phenotype. But in this discussion I'm mostly talking about memetic diseases that also have specific genetic markers.) Alcoholism and depression are two such diseases.
But other than the excessive focus on religion as a belief system, there seem to have been no systematic approaches to memetic diseases.
A much more specific range of system malfunctions is effectively represented by the range of diseases -- the human organism being that which has attracted most attention and resources. Diseases of the human system have been incorporated into a detailed classification scheme by the World Health Organization (International Classification of Diseases -- ICD). As well as general medical diseases, the ICD includes a section classifying mental and behavioral disorders.
To the extent that there is even a faint parallel between the human body and a social organization (as has often been pointed out), such a classification can then be used to provide suggestive pointers to the kinds of information malfunctions that may occur both in individuals and in the networks they form. (It is indeed possible that a classification of animal or plant diseases might provide some additional insights and it would also be interesting to compare this exercise with an attempt to classify disruptions to environmental ecosystems).
As with the experiment in producing an Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1976/1994), there will be some who consider that the very effort to identity such diseases is misplaced (even "unlucky") and likely to invoke what it supposedly aims to guard against. This is however a misguided form of "positive thinking", if it is through the prevalence of such diseases that efforts to facilitate networking are in fact impeded or undermined (Being Positive Avoiding Negativity: management challenge of positive vs negative, 2005). A clearer understanding of the factors resisting the growth of networking is required.
The remainder of this article is therefore concerned with identifying the kinds of questions which might be asked concerning the networking diseases associated with each of the major categories in the WHO International Classification of Diseases. It is for the reader to determine how seriously the results are to be taken particularly if, as a member of a network, he or she recognizes many possible symptoms as being characteristic of that network !
Having identified such diseases, providing they have a basis in reality, the question is then how to move towards devising suitable cures and preventive measures. It may well be that network "health" is associated with the kind of tension which results from the "tensed network" approach advocated elsewhere (Tensed networks; balancing and focusing network dynamics in response to networking diseases, 1978). . But many other avenues could be explored.
WHO 000-136: Infective and parasitic diseases
Infective : Can individuals and networks became "infected" as a result of the transfer of some viewpoint (micro-organism) from another person or network, such that once transferred the viewpoint is widely propagated throughout the network thus causing a particular disease ? What are the modes of infection, are there "carriers"; what are the symptoms, what are the appropriate preventive measures, etc. ?
Perhaps more intriguing is the question of whether one is oneself infectious and liable to infect others. Is there a case for some form of quarantine or, on a smaller scale, the use of a knowledge analogue to the face mask -- so courteously employed in some Asian cultures?
Parasitic: What kinds of knowledge "parasite" can flourish in individuals or networks as hosts -- being indebted to the latter for their sustenance, though contributing nothing to their welfare? Parasites may be comparatively harmless; or they may, by the mere irritation of their presence or by interference with the bodily functions of the host, give rise to troublesome symptoms: or they may even, by destroying vital parts or forming poisonous substances, lead to the death of the host.
WHO 140-239: Neoplasms (tumours)
Are individuals or their networks subject to either:
(a) "benign" knowledge growths within their tissue structure, pressing neighbouring parts aside without invading them, or
(b) "malignant" (cancerous) knowledge growths, spreading quickly, in a disorderly manner from point to point throughout the body of knowledge of the individual or network, invading and destroying surrounding tissues and those in which they arise, tending to recur after apparently complete removal, and being very liable to ulcerate?
What might be the causes, symptoms and varieties of such disease?
WHO 240-279: Endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases
Endocrine: Do individuals and their networks effectively possess certain knowledge "organs" whose function is the production of certain kinds of information which play an important part in regard to general network operations and the activities of other organs performing necessary counteracting functions ? How are such organs to be related to the mind?
Are such knowledge organs subject to diseases which can throw the individual or the network out of balance ? How many such knowledge organs -- "modules of the mind" -- and functions can be distinguished ? What are the symptoms of disease and of imbalance ?
Nutritional: What forms of nutrition (in the form of information) do individuals and networks effectively require ? Can this be usefully understood as a balanced " information diet"? Does an inadequate supply of certain kinds of information stunt the growth and development of a network ? Can the types of information be specifically identified together with the diseases to which their absence may give rise? Is it possible to design a " healthy diet " for an individual or a network ?
Metabolic: To what extent do individuals and their networks possess characteristic modes for processing information whereby their structure is maintained and energy is made available for various forms of work ? Are these processes subject to types of disease,
- whether in connection with the anabolic processes whereby incoming, information is constructively adapted for the use of the network,
- or with the catabolic processes by which energy is produced from the exploitation of stored information and with the production of waste products ?
WHO 280-289: Diseases of blood and blood-forming organs
Do individuals and their networks effectively possess some kind of carrier medium which circulates throughout their extent conveying new information to isolated sectors and removing from them the (negative) waste products of networking activity ? To what diseases is the medium subject, and what are their causes and symptoms ?
WHO 290-315: Mental disorders
Individuals and networks control their own behaviour and attitudes by the appropriate transmission of information- Are disorders in this process liable to occur because of either predisposing causes (e.g. defects inherited from their progenitors, abnormal disposition or temperament) or exciting causes or stresses (e.g. various diseases, growth stresses during transition phases, deprivation and externally induced stress, anxiety-related stress) ?
Do symptoms take the form of abnormal beliefs (delusions, hallucinations) or acts (aggression, auto-destruction, etc.) ? To what varieties of mental disorder may networks be subject (mania, melancholia, paranoia, schizophrenia, confusional states, mental enfeeblement) ?
WHO 320-389: Diseases of the nervous system and sense organs
Are individuals and networks subject to diseases with symptoms such as
(a) disturbances of information input ability either in the form of loss of receptivity, hypersensitivity or perverted sensitivity, or
(b) occurrence of more or less complete paralysis of whole portions of the network (possibly accompanied by spastic activity, whether or not in response to environmental stimuli, or general impairment in the power of coordination) ?
What sort of environmental and other factors contribute to such diseases (pace of life, shocks, poisons) ?
WHO 390-458: Diseases of the circulatory system
Given the possibility that individuals and networks effectively possess some kind of carrier medium for the circulation of information, to what extent are they subject to diseases resulting from the accumulation of the medium in particular parts of the network (congestion) or an inadequate supply to other parts ?
What are the symptoms and causes of such circulatory problems ? Is it possible that some individuals and networks suffer from information "obesity" and lack of "exercise"?
WHO 460-519: Diseases of the respiratory system
Individuals and networks may be conceived as "breathing" information in order to revitalize their various parts. Are they subject to diseases associated with irregularities in this breathing cycle ?
Again what are the symptoms and causes of such respiratory problems ? Is it possible to design some form of information breathing exercise appropriate to an individual or a network ?
WHO 520-577: Diseases of the digestive system
Individuals and their networks may be conceived as ingesting facts, which are broken down into a form which enables information to be extracted from them, absorbed and assimilated throughout the network.
Is it possible that individuals and their networks may be subject to diseases associated with these processes ? What would be their symptoms and causes ?
WHO 580-629: Diseases of the genito-urinary system
How do individuals and their networks discharge the (negative) waste products arising from, or generated by, their activity ?
Are there diseases associated with this process ? If individuals and their networks may be assumed to regenerate or reproduce themselves in some way, is this process linked in any way to the discharge process ? To what diseases might it be subject ?
WHO 630-678: Complications of pregnancy and childbirth
Whether within individuals or their networks, smaller knowledge networks emerge within such larger knowledge networks and may eventually break away.
To what extent can this be viewed as a process of pregnancy and birth ? What disorders are liable to be associated with this process ? How do they affect the parent network and its offspring ? (Should attention be given to some equivalent of midwife skills ?)
WHO 680-709: Diseases of the skin and subcutaneous tissue
As with a system (although probably different in kind), an individual or a network may be conceived as being separated from its environment by a boundary. Is it to be expected that such a membrane has functions analogous to those of protection, secretion, heat regulation and respiration ?
To what kinds of diseases might such a boundary be subject disorders of the "secreting apparatus", disorders relating to growth, "inflarnmatory affections", "nervous disorders", "parasitic affections" ? How would these affect an individual's ability, or that of a network, to process information and how might they be recognized ?
WHO 710-738: Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue
Do some features of information and knowledge networks of an individual (or of their networks) perform structural functions analogous to the skeletal system and the associated muscles (whether voluntary or involuntary) ?
Is it to be expected that such information networks are subject to disorders analogous to arthritis or rheumatism ? How are they to be detected ?
WHO 740-759: Congenital abnormalities
Given a formative or birthing process for information or knowledge networks, is it to be expected that the emergent networks are subject to congenital abnormalities, possibly inherited form their progenitors ?
What forms might these take and what are the consequences for the viable functioning of the networks ? Should some individuals or their networks be considered inherently "handicapped" or "challenged" in their capacity to process information?
WHO 760-779: Certain causes of perinatal morbidity and mortality
Clearly the formation of new information and knowledge networks is not always without difficulty and is not always successful.
What are the kinds of failure to which information and knowledge networks are subject in this early period? What are the symptoms of such problems? What are the causes of failure and stillbirths ?
WHO 780-796: Symptoms and ill-defined conditions
To what other ill-defined disorders are information and knowledge networks subject -- analogous to the many vague pains (headache, etc) which may occur within the human body ?
WHO 800-999: Accidents, poisonings and violence
To what kinds of "accidents" are information and knowledge networks subject? How may they be damaged inadvertently or as a result of careless interaction with their environment ?
What are the consequences of "fractures" in vital structural elements or of punctured boundaries ? What kinds of violence can be inflicted upon networks ? (This question is explored separately). How are the effects of such occurrences to be recognized ?
An individual or network may engage in information consumption dangerously in excess of requirements for normal development. The quantity may be imbalanced in some way in which case the challenges are better understood in terms of deficiencies (see below). Indicative of possible excesses in the information diet are the well-recognized (although possibly controversial) excesses in the food diet:
Excess consumption of information sugars (carbohydrates)?: Modern foodstuffs and lifestyle choices typically lead to the excessive consumption of sugars (notably through "soft drinks"). This is a significant factor in increasing vulnerability to diabetes -- a major problem worldwide. Given the ways in which sugar is used metaphorically as an indication of all that is "sweet", " nice" and "desirable", and the lifestyle preferences for those qualities, this suggests a probability that preference for "good news" information (in contrast to a more challenging information diet) may increase vulnerability to an information analogue to diabetes. It is noteworthy that diabetes is a major problem in indigenous communities forcefully brought into contact with the dietary options of modern civilization -- alienating them from their more balanced traditional diets. The possibly problematic character of "sweetners" in an information diet may be powerfully illustrated by increasing recognition of the health risks of omnipresent artificial sweetners, notably aspartame(suspected of links to cancer).
Excess consumption of information fats?: Modern foodstuffs and lifestyle preferences (notably for "fast foods") have resulted in an increasing problem of obesity worldwide. This is a significant factor in increasing vulnerability to cardiovascular diseases. Can styles of information consumption be seen as analogous to such consumption of fats and severely reduced preferences for exercise in any form. Does this lead to a form of "information obesity" -- a knowledge analogue to the "couch potato" phenomenon? Is this what is recognized in such terms as "armchair philosopher", "armchair soldier" or "armchair activist"?
The challenge of "information obesity" may be further explored in terms of the past programme on Information Overload and Information Underuse (IOIU) of the United Nations University.
Excess consumption of information vitamins?: ****
Dietary deficiencies in the individual are disorders that occur because of a lack of essential nutrients in the diet, or because the body cannot absorb and process those nutrients once they are eaten. The question here is whether individuals (or their networks and communities) may also suffer from deficiencies in their "information diet" to which the nutrient deficiencies offer useful pointers. This question has credibility given a probable degree of isomorphism between such information-dependent systems in the light of general systems theory.
The human body is dependent for its health and growth on some 50 nutritional components that have been clustered into five nutritional groups: proteins, vitamins, minerals, fats and carbohydrate. Most dietary deficiency diseases are caused by a lack of the first three of these. Some sense of their lack is implied by such expressions as "information starvation", "knowledge starvation" and "misinformation" -- or even a "lack of energy"..
Deficiencies in information protein?: Is there a form of information protein that is an essential component of all information processing and associated knowledge activity? How is its absence to be recognized when information processing is impaired or inhibited? Is there a disorder analogous to protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) that is indicative of analogues to calorie (energy) and protein deficiency disorders (such as kwashiorkor and marasmus), so prevalent in developing countries where people lack sufficient food? What might then be the nature of the information food that would counteract such propensities?
Deficiencies in information vitamins?: Are there information analogues to the 13 vitamins essential for healthy physical growth, development, cell function, and metabolism. What are the information equivalents to vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the eight B vitamins (together forming the B complex)? Is there indeed a sense in which information all vitamins must be taken into the body from "outside information sources" (with the exception of vitamins D and K)?
Deficiencies in information minerals?: ***
Deficiencies in information fats?: ***
Deficiencies in information carbohydrates?: ***
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is applied an umbrella term integrating complementary medicine and alternative medicine. Typical examples of CAM approaches to individual health are herbalism, meditation, chiropractic, yoga, body work and diet-based therapies. In extending their understanding of health beyond that of conventional medicine, such therapies may effectively recognize forms of information or knowledge disease. Of particular interest in that respect is a notion of "negativity" and the association of of information and knowledge health with "positivity". Problematic aspects of such framing are discussed elsewhere (Being Positive Avoiding Negativity: management challenge of positive vs negative, 2005).
It is also the case that, from the perspective of conventional medicine, belief in either complementary or alternative therapies may themselves be understood as memetic diseases in their own right -- just as CAM therapists may consider belief in conventional therapies to be similarly dysfunctional.
Irrespective of these views, it is clear that CAM perspectives offer a rich array of frameworks through which a "complementary" and "alternative" range of understandings of information and knowledge diseases may emerge. Of particular interest is the importance attached to such frameworks in non-western cultures.
More generally, new insight into information and knowledge diseases may emerge from the tendency of CAM therapies to focus holistically and integratively on the "whole person". How might this insight enrich the understanding of individual and collective "well-being"?
Given the concept of an information diet (as explored above), it may then be asked whether there are analogues considered essential as psychological "nutritional" supplements to information vitamins, minerals, fatty acids or amino acids -- namely considered as missing or consumed in insufficient quantity in the information diet of an individual or a network.
One approach is to consider the manner in which public media programming slots are variously allocated to sport, humour, sitcoms, action movies, music, romance, glamour, food, etc. Further refinements can be considered in the light of preferences for kinds of music, for example. The role of humour is especially interesting in deliberately breaking out of conventional cognitive frameworks and the "relief" it offers from such frameworks (cf Humour and Play-Fullness: essential integrative processes in governance, religion and transdisciplinarity, 2005). Satire may be seen in this context.
It is in this sense that playfullness may be of unsuspected importance in the response to challenging collective problems (Playfully Changing the Prevailing Climate of Opinion: climate change as focal metaphor of effective global governance, 2005).
Such considerations suggest a fruitful way of thinking about the "information supplements" valued in traditional societies and non-western cultures. Two clusters are of interest as what may be tantamount to a "multivitamin" information complex:
More systematically it may be asked whether classical sets of "virtues" and "sins" can be analyzed to determine the fundamental "information supplements" vital to the successful navigation of knowledge society, as explored elsewhere (Navigating Alternative Conceptual Realities: clues to the dynamics of enacting new paradigms through movement, 2007; Towards a Logico-mathematical Formalization of "Sin" Fundamental memetic organization of faith-based governance strategies, 2004).
Given the achievements of the industrialized world using a particular information diet (promoted by the dominant, official, socio-political mindset), the issue of supplements to such a diet is especially interesting in the light of individual dependency on relief from that diet (even by those who promote the official diet in their professional capacity). Examples of information supplements that may be considered vital to rendering life tolerable are:
Much more problematic is the sensed need for pornography, and the like, as exemplified by some surprising cases subject to criminal investigation and media publicity.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), produced by the American Psychiatric Association, provides a classification of disorders which is compatible with the relevant section of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) discussed above.
Clearly the many physical manifestations of disease can be interpreted as disorders of information processing understood in terms of biochemical signals and their effects on the body. Analogues can be explored, as above, to disorders in the ways in which information is processed in knowledge and cognition.
In the case of mental disorders, these are more clearly to be understood as disorders in cognitive information processing in their own right. However, whereas the above interpretation focused on a form of objectivity to the information analogue, of particular interest is the manner in which mental disorders raise highly controversial issues regarding the existence and role of the unconscious.
An example is provided by the study of Howard F. Stein (The Influence of Psychogeography upon the Conduct of International Relations: clinical and metapsychological considerations. 2008) who argues:
The study of psychogeography begins with the assumption that reality is not neutral; not simply “there” for the seeing. The scope of psychogeography is the unconscious construction of the social and physical world. Men and women fashion the world out of the substance of their psyches from the experience of their bodies; they project psychic contents outward onto the social and physical world, and act as though what is projected is in fact an attribute of the other or outer. What we attribute (verb) to the world we subsequently take to be an attribute (noun) of the world. Fantasies about the body are transmuted into descriptions of one's own group, other groups, into shapes and features of the world. Projected outward, the fate of the body becomes the fate of the world.
One fruitful approach is therefore to explore such mental disorders of the individual as providing insights into the information processing disorders to which networks, groups and other collectivities are vulnerable. This has notably been undertaken elsewhere in the case of memory (Societal Learning and the Erosion of Collective Memory: a critique of the Club of Rome Report: No Limits to Learning, 1980).
Especially relevant to any classification of knowledge-related diseases are the insights into mapping such problematic information relations into knots -- as pioneered by psychiatrist Ronald Laing (Knots, 1970; also movie). His photograph in Wikipedia represents him reading the The Ashley Book of Knots (1944), profiling some 2000. This theme was developed by psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, notably from 1972, in terms of the topology of knots (see Lacan: Topologically Speaking, 2004, edited by Dragan Milovanovic and Ellie Ragland). For Laing (1970), in a much cited phrase:
The patterns delineated here have not yet been classified by a Linnaeus of human bondage. They are all, perhaps, strangely, familiar. In these pages I have confined myself to laying out only some of those I actually have seen. Words that come to mind to name them are: knots, tangles, fankles, impasses, disjunctions, whirligogs, binds. I could have remained closer to the ‘raw’ data in which these patterns appear. I could have distilled them further towards an abstract logico-mathematical calculus. I hope they are not so schematized that one may not refer back to the very specific experiences from which they derive; yet that they are sufficiently independent of ‘content’, for one to divine the final formal elegance in these webs of maya.
Much has been made of the sexual freedoms that became possible in the West from the 1960s through which permissiveness and promiscuity acquired a degree of acceptability in many sectors of society. Much has been made of the "social diseases" -- as a reframing of "sexually transmitted disease" -- that increased as a consequence. The problematic developments were exacerbated by the emergence of HIV/AIDS, and the urban myths surrounding the development of that disease. This has of course resulted in many "safe sex" programmes.
Of relevance to this discussion is a possible analogy to the phase of sexual freedoms from the 1960s, now to be found in the permissiveness and promiscuity of "intercourse" through "social networking" via the internet. There is of course an awareness of the threat of exchange of viruses (and other malware) between those participating in such intercourse -- with many protective programmes available.
The question is whether some information analogue to HIV/AIDS may emerge within the social networking environment?
"Social disease" is also understood more broadly to include those arising from dietary lifestyle fashions. Thus obesity has been explored as a social disease -- associated with the nature of social contact (Obesity: A Social Disease, 2007; Obesity Spreads In Social Circles As Trends Do, Study Indicates, 2007).
The above focus on the individual, and on the networks in which an individual may participate, obscures the relevance of these preoccupations for what might be the public health analogue, namely the study and practice of managing threats to the health of a community as a whole -- to the "body social" understood here as the "body of knowledge".
This focus is clearly of concern in use of the terms "cultural virus" and "memetic viruses" as noted above.
Beyond the particular view of religions as cultural viruses, the question for such "public health" is the extent to which any belief system, including science (as it is widely practiced by mutually hostile disciplines), should be understood as a challenge to the health of the "body of knowledge".
In the debate about the emergence of a global brain, it is appropriate to reflect on the diseases to which it may be vulnerable (cf Knowledge "corruption" and possible "diseases" of the global brain discussed in Simulating a Global Brain -- using networks of international organizations, world problems, strategies, and values, 2001). Such concerns may be especially appropriate in the light of the threat of "memetic warfare" (Missiles, Missives, Missions and Memetic Warfare: navigation of strategic interfaces in multidimensional knowledge space, 2001). Such issues relate to what might be termed the "diseases of collective intelligence" of which "silo vision", "tunnel vision" and "groupthink" are examples (Groupthink: the Search for Archaeoraptor as a Metaphoric Tale missing the link between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists", 2002).
Also of interest is the extent to which many public debates are in some way symptomatic of information/knowledge/memetic diseases (and the autoimmune responses thereto) -- especially when they involve unusual degrees of special pleading and obtuse denial. Examples for consideration in this respect include: climate change, food crisis, water crisis, overpopulation, energy crisis, unemployment, etc.
It is ironical that the process by which the facts of such matters are collectively "digested" by the international community can fruitfully be said to be accompanied by a phenomenon best described as analogous to "flatulence" -- whether or not it empowers any other form of activity. This is especially ironic in the case of "carbon emissions", but is especially tragic where some degree of urgency is called for as in Zimbabwe or Dafur.
|Is the world sane or insane ? Trying to take a balanced view of human behaviour is fraught with problems. Which assumptions of normality should one hold in considering a global society ? Is it possible for the whole world to be insane ? Here we claim that not only is this possible, but to a large extent human behaviour must already be designated to be showing signs of pathological insanity. (Chris Lucas, An Odyssey into Insanity, 2004)|
The metaphor of information diseases and disorders can be further explored in terms of its implications for causes of death -- given some recognition of "psychological death" or "death of the spirit" -- perhaps recognized through such phrases as "dying of a broken heart". Wikipedia presents the following list of causes of death based on data of the World Health Organization (The World Health Report 2004) -- the items have been regrouped in the following adaptation. The question implied by the added column on the right, is what might be the information, memetic or knowledge analogues?
||Cause of death|| Percent
|Deaths per 100,000 per year||Information
|A||Cardiovascular diseases ("Heart disease")||29.34||268.8||259.3||278.4||?|
|A.1||Ischemic heart disease||12.64||115.8||121.4||110.1||?|
|A.2||Cerebrovascular disease ("Stroke")||9.66||88.5||81.4||95.6||?|
|A.3||Hypertensive heart disease||1.60||14.6||13.4||15.9||?|
|A.4||Inflammatory heart disease||0.71||6.5||6.7||6.2||?|
|A.5||Rheumatic heart disease||0.57||5.3||4.4||6.1||?|
|B||Infectious and parasitic diseases||19.12||175.2||185.1||165.1||?|
|B.1.1||Lower respiratory tract infections||6.81||62.4||62.2||62.6||?|
|B.1.2||Upper respiratory infections||0.13||1.2||1.2||1.2||?|
|B.7||Sexually transmitted diseases excluding HIV||0.32||2.9||2.9||2.9||?|
|C||Malignant neoplasms ("Cancer")||12.49||114.4||126.9||101.7||?|
|C.7||Lymphomas, multiple myeloma||0.59||5.4||5.4||5.4||?|
|C.8||Oral cancers and oropharynx cancers||0.56||5.1||7.1||3.1||?|
|C.16||Melanoma and other skin cancers||0.12||1.1||1.1||1.0||?|
|D.1||Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease||4.82||44.1||45.1||43.1||?|
|E||Unintentional injuries ("Accidents")||6.23||57.0||73.7||40.2||?|
|E.1||Road traffic accidents||2.09||19.1||27.8||10.4||?|
|F.1||Cirrhosis of the liver||1.38||12.6||16.1||9.1||?|
|F.2||Peptic ulcer disease||0.46||4.2||5.0||3.5||?|
|G||Intentional injuries (suicide, murder, war, etc.)||2.84||26.0||37.0||14.9||?|
|H.1||Alzheimer's disease and other dementias||0.70||6.4||4.7||8.1||?|
|H.4||Alcohol use disorders||0.16||1.5||2.5||0.4||?|
|H.5||Drug use disorders||0.15||1.4||2.2||0.5||?|
|I||Diseases of the genitourinary system||1.49||13.6||14.1||13.1||?|
|I.2||Benign prostatic hyperplasia||0.06||0.5||1.0||0.0||?|
|J.2||Iron deficiency anemia||0.24||2.2||1.5||2.9||?|
|–||Neoplasms other than malignant||0.26||2.4||2.4||2.4||?|
A more succinct table, that might be more useful for this exploration, is available for the USA (Ben Best, Causes of Death). Its associated Life Extension Values Clarification Survey implies the possibility of relating such a survey to some form of information death. This brings the focus closer to a more generic understanding of "well-being".
Of related interest, any understanding of information or knowledge analogues to "causes of death" in the case of individuals might be usefully associated with the societal and cultural focus on the demise of civilizations (Jared M. Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, 2005; Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization, 2006; Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, 2007). In the case of cardiovascular diseases as the major cause of death, a more speculative argument is developed elsewhere (Spontaneous Initiation of Armageddon: a heartfelt response to systemic negligence, 2004).
It is curious that a major context for torture is the form of isolation associated with deliberate sensory deprivation -- one of the so-called five techniques. This may be understood as a severely restricted information diet -- beyond "malnutrition" to "information starvation". This readily leads to mental disorders and delusions -- deliberately cultivated in order to disorient the person subject to these conditions. It might be understood as deliberately infecting the person with an "information disease". One question would be to what physical diseases are these information diseases then analogous? Of related interest -- as a concept of some form of torture -- is the concept of the destruction of the human brain, and information within it, to such an extent that recovery of the original mind and person that occupied the brain is theoretically impossible by any physical means">information-theoretic death, namely the destruction of the human brain, and information within it, to such an extent that recovery of the original mind and person that occupied the brain is theoretically impossible by any physical means.
From this perspective it is perhaps even more curious that a form of sensory deperivation is deliberately sought as a means of personal development and of enhancing insight. This may take the form of use of a sensory deprivation tank (or isolation tank) in which the person stays for a period of hours.
It is however also the case that individuals may seek a monastic lifestyle -- or possibly choose to live in some form of reclusion in a hermitage, whether associated with a particular religion or not. A feature of this preference may be a form of sensory deprivation through the elimination of "distractions" (as highlighted in Buddhism). One objective of such solitude may be some form of insight enhancement -- perhaps as the remedy for information diseases of some kind. Ironically (given the issue of "information death" described above) it may be described, and sought, as a form of "death" understood as associated with a form of well-being -- "beyond" the information diseases of ordinary life, through a process of detachment and a shift of perspective ("ego death").
This deliberate subjection to a form of "information disease" can be provocatively compared with the understanding (cited above) of religion as a "memetic disease". How indeed is a religion -- defined as a "self-referential belief system", understood as "simple and repetitive" and incorporating "vicious circles of false reasoning" -- to be distinguished from the forms of insight sought in such isolation and solitude?
More provocatively, in an information society highly influenced by media priorities, it is appropriate to question the implications of "dumbing down" debate, effectively (over)simplifying an individual's information context. Developmental psychologists note the advantages of a complex environment to stimulate neuronal development at an early age. External complexity at a later stage, notably for elders, has also been recognized as sustaining brain function. Where such external complexity is lacking in an impoverished information environment, the latter may function as a form of mirror engendering the generation of internal complexity -- a process of self-reflection.
How this difference in recognized complexity is managed is clearly of interest to individual and collective well-being. The cognitive challenge is raised and formalized by the study of Ron Atkin (Multidimensional Man: Can man live in three dimensional space? 1981) summarized elsewhere. The challenge has been highlighted in various works of mathematical fiction regarding the experience of space of different dimensionality (Edwin A. Abbott. Flatland : A Romance of Many Dimensions, 1884; Dionys Burge, A Fantasy About Curved Spaces and an Expanding Universe, 1965; Ian Stewart, Flatterland: Like Flatland, Only More So, 2002).
As noted in the introduction, there is a case for extending understanding of "information" far beyond the biological metaphor of "disease" -- for which the terms "knowledge disorders" or information disorders" may be more appropriate. One schema to clarify the possible scope is provided in the following table (reproduced from Diversity of Understandings of any Universe of Information -- from matter-as-information to cosmic consciousness, 2006 as Annex 1 to Towards an Astrophysics of the Knowledge Universe: from astronautics to noonautics? 2006).
|Clustered understandings of a "universe of knowledge" (tentative)|
(as logical matrix of information algorithms)
Ecology of mind
| Universe of spirit
Net of Indra
| Cultural universe
| Universe of cyberspace
World Wide Web
| Global Brain
Global electronic mind
Within this context, a challenging form of information disorder -- perhaps to be understood as a knowledge disorder -- is that of groupthink. The significance of the latter was explicitly recognized in relation to the intelligence disaster associated with 9/11 and its follow-up (Groupthink: the Search for Archaeoraptor as a Metaphoric Tale missing the link between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists", 2002).
A strong case for investigation of "knowledge disorders" is in effect made in the advocacy of critical thinking and in the development of the skills of discernment (cf Critical Thinking vs Specious Arguments, 2001). Variants of this term do not appear to be used although it is the focus of a chapter of the Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching
|The Disease of Knowing /
The Disease of Knowledge
Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching (Legge translation)
To know and yet (think) we do not know is
the highest (attainment);
It is simply by being pained at (the thought of) having this disease
The sage has not the disease.
Some of the challenges of knowing have been admirably articulated by the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld in the following widely publicized poem (Hart Seely, The Poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld: recent works by the secretary of defense. 2 April 2003).
|The Unknown by Donald Rumsfeld
US Department of Defense news briefing, 12 February 2002,
|As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.
Such subtlety (recalling Laing's knots) in no way prevented the initiation of programs of torture, invasive information gathering and disinformation -- unprecedented in any modern democratic society supposedly founded on democratic principles. This may be seen as a complement to the electronic surveillance previously initiated under the code name ECHELON.
A more recent variant is indicated by the US Air Force Research Laboratory's Information Directorate of a programme to "stealthily exfiltrate information" from any computer in the world and ultimately "be able to affect computer information systems through Deceive, Deny, Disrupt, Degrade, Destroy (D5) effects." (Online warfare research outlined, The Washington Times, 15 May 2008). These 5D's might be fruitfully compared -- as knowledge diseases -- with the five interrogation techniques mentioned above.
The question to be asked is the extent to which these preoccupations constitute a fundamental "knowledge disease" focused on a dysfunctional obsessive form of knowing -- to be contrasted with the forms of "not knowing" to which the Tao Te Ching alludes -- namely a mode of "knowing less" in contrast with the ECHELON commitment to "knowing more", as argued elsewhere (From ECHELON to NOLEHCE: enabling a strategic conversion to a faith-based global brain, 2007).
From a philosophical perspective, various studies have inveighed against "philosophical diseases" (Josef Seifert, The Philosophical Diseases of Medicine and Their Cure: philosophy and ethics of medicine, 2004). It is however to be expected that any philosophy may be inclined to frame alternative perspectives as an instance of some form of cognitive disorder. Ludwig Wittgenstein specifically undertook his work as a remedy for certain forms of philosophical disease -- as he understood them. Each philosophy may be understoiod as a form of cure for knowledge diseases that preceded its formulation.
More generally, in the light of the focus of the above quote from the Tao Te Ching, is the possibility of what might be described as "wisdom diseases" or "diseases of wisdom". It is to these that the subtlest injunctions of some Eastern philosophies are presumably addressed as tentatively explored elsewhere (Navigating Alternative Conceptual Realities: clues to the dynamics of enacting new paradigms through movement, 2007). Works like the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, as "books of wisdom", are especially interesting because of their systematic organization -- suggesting the possibility of a systemic approach to the cognitive challenges of individual and collective decision-making in the face of vulnerabilities to a range of "cognitive disorders" (see Documents relating to Patterns of I Ching / Tao te Ching). The challenge is to "mine" such insight, as argued elsewhere (Enhancing the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West metaphors, 2000; Susantha Goonatilake. Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge, 1999).
The above context could fruitfully raise the question as to the nature of value "diseases" or "disorders" and whether they could also be articulated in the light of the metaphorical template of diseases of the body.
Religions, such as Christianity, have a strong interest in moral and ethical "disorders". William J. Meyer (Political Ethics and Political Authority, Ethics, 86, 1, 1975, pp. 61-69) focuses on "ethical disorders".
One notion of "value disorders" is framed in a fruitful way from a Chinese perspective by (Chien-Feng Yang, Respect: A Living Attitude in Postmodern Society, 2005; A Postmodern Narrative about Ethical Life, 2007) developing the critiques of Zygmunt Bauman (Postmodern Ethics, 1993; Postmodernity and its discontents, 1997; Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? 2008) and the postmodern emphasis on individualism, liberty and multiple values of society. Chien-Feng Yang notes:
Traditionally the regards of the values of universal rational, the whole harmony were detatched from the pursuit of individual liberty. And they become the flooding tides of value consuming market. For the reasons above, postmodern society presents a type of disorder and a sense of unsecurity. To consider about how to solve the society chaos caused by the individual liberty, simply reversed to traditional considerations of coexistent benefits and security by setting lawful regulations, improving regiment systems, or propagendizing some moral ethics forcing the civic citizens to obey are not enough. Then, how do we face the value disorders in society?
E. Wenk (The Double Helix: technology and democracy in the American future, 1999) stresses the need to shift analysis beyond the tangible to "ethical disorders" relating to human behaviour or misbehavior.
Such possibilities, in the light of the subtle systematic cognitive explorations of Buddhism (for example), have been explored elsewhere in studies cited above (Navigating Alternative Conceptual Realities: clues to the dynamics of enacting new paradigms through movement, 2007; Towards a Logico-mathematical Formalization of "Sin" Fundamental memetic organization of faith-based governance strategies, 2004). Basically the question is whether classical sets of "virtues" and "sins" can be analyzed to determine the nature of the value disorders to which they respond -- and the fundamental "supplements" vital to the successful navigation of knowledge society.
Another approach is through exploration of the range of global ethical declarations and the implication here that they might have been effectively designed in response to an array of "ethical disorders" -- and might therefore be fruitfully compared (from a cybernetic systems perspective) with the array of physical diseases above. Clearly the key example is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But one question is what might be effectively missing from such a "rights" perspective, as explored elsewhere (Universal Declaration of the Rights of Human Organization: an experimental extension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1971; Universal Declaration of Responsibilities of Human Intercourse: a draft proposal, 2007; Universal Declaration of Patent Responsibilities: a draft proposal, 2007).
Of possibly greater significance is the need to render comprehensible and meaningful such complex systemic structures -- as "ethical diets" or "value regimes". Given the traditional "legendary" merit of music in relation to the "healing" of subtle disorders of the (collective) spirit, its relevance to such declarations has been explored elsewhere (A Singable Earth Charter, EU Constitution or Global Ethic? 2006; Participative Development Process for Singable Declarations, 2006).
The text above is designed to provoke an imaginative examination of the current information health of individuals and their networks. A first comment is that in discussing diseases one should take care to avoid engaging in medical "quackery" -- how that might be understood being part of the challenge in this context. And indeed some management consultants give the impression of attempting to provide imaginary cures for real organizational ills, or real cures for imaginary ills (cf. the role of the "snake oil" vendor). But such processes might themselves be seen as fruitful examples of information diseases. This in fact suggests a complementary approach in which known information errors -- failures of critical thinking -- are themselves used to to identify a pattern of such diseases. Cynicism is a good example.
Further examples should be collected from a variety of sources (stimulated in different ways by. the above presentation) before relating them to any classification as above. A systematic grouping cases would be premature, at this point.
In relation to the 1978 version of this paper, the discussion brought out a number of points:
Ron Atkin. Multidimensional Man: Can man live in three dimensional space? London, Penguin, 1981 [review]
Ben Sandford Cullen. Contagious Ideas: On Evolution, Culture, Archaeology and Cultural Virus Theory. Oxbow Books, 2000
Jared M. Diamond. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York, Viking Books, 2005
John Gall. Systemantics; how systems work and especially how they fail. New York, Pocket Books, 1977 [review]
Susantha Goonatilake. Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1999
Michael Haas. Types of asymmetry in social and political systems. In: General Systems (Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research), 12, 1967, pp 69-79.
Thomas Homer-Dixon. The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization. Toronto, Knopf, 2006
Thomas L. Jipping. Diagnosing the Cultural Virus. World and I, 14, July 1999 [text]
Anthony Judge. Tensed networks; balancing and focusing network dynamics in response to networking diseases. Transnational Associations, 30, 1978, 11, pp. 480-485 [text]
R. D. Laing. Knots. London, Penguin. 1970 [excerpts]
Dragan Milovanovic and Ellie Ragland (Eds.). Lacan: Topologically Speaking. Other Press, 2004
Mark Ridely. Infected with science: If religion is a cultural virus, where does that leave science? New Scientist, 25 December 1993 [text]
Howard F. Stein. The Influence of Psychogeography upon the Conduct of International Relations: clinical and metapsychological considerations. 2008 [text]
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. New York, Random House, 2007
Union of International Associations and Mankind 2000. Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. Brussels, 1976/1994. [summary]
George van Driem. Languages of the Himalayas: an ethnolinguistic handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region containing an introduction to the symbiotic theory of language. Brill, 2001
World Health Organization. International Classification of Diseases. Geneva, WHO [summary]
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