The study of the corvid family, specifically crows and ravens, has given cognitive scientists much to think about in the past few decades. While they went down a very different evolutionary path from the primates, scientists have found these birds able to problem solve, build specialized tools for tasks, demonstrate long term memory, observe and employ social contracts, seemingly communicate specific lessons learned across generations, and employ theory of mind. While their biology is notably different, their brains have evolved to pack quite a bit of punch in terms of cognitive load versus brain mass, traditionally reserved for the primates.
In short, theory of mind is the ability to infer what an other is planning, thinking, observing, wants, etc. Theory of mind is thinking about how another thinks; at the most basic level it involves observing where another’s eye gaze is directed. In the case of ravens, scientists have conducted experiments demonstrating food catching behavior in which the corvids would hide food more quickly and return to hidden food catches less often if they thought they were being observed by another raven. While not conclusive, the evidence across these kinds of experiments lends researchers to consider crows and ravens have the ability to consider the knowledge competitors have or are obtaining, to consider the information available to others, and to modify their own activities to maintain or increase their survival capabilities.
Certainly most people, and probably primates, ravens, and some pets, use theory of mind to navigate life. Theory of mind is essential for complex social relationships, specifically social exchanges, the “if-then” logic rules which humans are fairly good at detecting violations of. Of note, humans in general are particularly bad at detecting violations of logic which are not in the context of social exchange.
Why all this thinking about how others think? Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to dupe or trick another who doesn’t have the same level of insight or reflection, it functions as a protective mechanism – as highlighted in the food caching experiments. It seems, all living organisms who have theory of mind are recognizing a principle of information – in its natural state it is free, fast, and available to anyone who might be available to observe it. In this classic sense of information, the confidentiality and availability of the information are limited to the observers. The integrity of information would also be limited by physiological considerations of the organism observing, and potentially by its mental state, and history with the observed event in question. Availability of information may also be impacted by the desire of any observers to relay the information in question through some medium, but naturally this second and third order transfer of information can have all sorts of effects on the integrity of the original data.
While observers may participate in modifying the availability, integrity, and confidentiality of any ingested information, at least as it pertains to sharing, not sharing, or altering recalled information, the original information is of course unchanged. The fact that a tree fell in the forest does not change (hopefully) with the retelling or observation of said tree falling, although quantum mechanics brings some questions to the forefront in regards to reality and observation.
Today, technology can certainly make the availability of information fairly close to the precipitating event more “available,” but confidentiality and integrity have seen significant losses for the same reason. Certainly there have been temporary successes in terms of encryption technologies, methods to detect potential integrity issues in relayed information, temporal assurances of confidentiality, but in the scheme of things these advances are of course lost to counter-technologies. As information is capital in a competitive world, one group or another will always attempt to circumvent one or all elements of the security triad. All organisms have biological underpinnings which drive them to do so, to minimize stressors and maximize they likelihood their genes will be successfully passed on.
Perhaps, rather than investing all this time and energy into maintaining information dominance while actively attempting to undermine the attempts of others to do the same, it is time to reconsider the nature of information. Perhaps information wishes to be free and resists our attempts to render it otherwise; or as some would say, the truth will come out.
We are probably not too far off from being able to look at the quantum nature of information, that is detecting any attempts to change the integrity of information would become apparent due to entanglement. Early experiments into quantum mechanics imply even observation of information changes the nature of the observed, again having implications in regards to entanglement (short version – everything is connected, touch an atom in Wisconsin and one on Alpha Centauri vibrates too).
If this is the case, that the information resultant of a tree falling in primordial Pangea, can be retrieved if for only the technology, then it may well be time to rethink how we treat information, and therefore each other. The ethical implications were always there and only become more stark in a situation where only one society maintains access to the “true” state of information.
If we strive to be a species in conflict, the idea being that competition gives rise to – something, then fine, treat information as capital. If we strive to move beyond a species simply fighting for generational turf, then perhaps we should allow information to move freely more rather than less.
Of course this all fine and good until we reach that fine line between private and public data. The right of the individual to own his or her data, for time to wipe away memories – true and false, is already at odds with a world hungry for data to construct its latest chrysalis. It seems lately the choice has been made by us already, through our collective actions. At the end of the day, progress as a species may be more likely if we begin to change our default perspectives rather than our default environments.