An Information Age Glossary

We live in an information-rich environment, but our minds are still wired for an environment of information scarcity. It still hasn’t really hit us that in the last 20 years, we’ve experienced a transformation that is as dramatic for our brains as climbing out of the water and learning to breathe air was for our ancient fishy ancestors. 

For the past year or so, I seem to have been unconsciously retooling my thinking and writing to operate in an information-rich environment. A big part of such cognitive ret0oling is  learning to favor particular terms (or unusual redefinitions of existing terms), and deprecating older terms and meanings that assume information scarcity. 

I figure it is time to get more conscious and deliberate about the retooling, so I am sharing the current state of my glossary. Proposals for new terms, or refinements of definitions welcome. I’ll edit this post for a while, and if people find it useful, we can try to figure out a more permanent home for it.

Very little of this is original to me by the way. I’ve credited people where I can, but a lot of this is the outcome of conversations with people I am not at liberty to cite publicly. So you can credit me for any substance here, and blame these invisible collaborators for any bullshit.

Related: I’ve wanted a CMS dedicated to creating shared glossaries for a long time, and even took a half-hearted stab at building one with a friend. I’d enthusiastically support any such effort.

Note: this glossary is in alphabetical order, without any cross-referencing. So you may have to skip back and forth a bit to get certain terms. This is also work-in-progress. Usual beta-state disclaimers apply.

Acting Dead: Pretending the world is less information-rich than it is. (Derived from Bruce Sterling)

Aestheticization: The process of creating a layer of superficial simplicity, harmony and normalcy as an aid to denial of underlying complexity, dissonance and strangeness.

Antifragility: (1) A property of a class of hypothesized things that gain from disorder (qualified paraphrase of N. N. Taleb) (2) The hypothesized longevity, intelligence premium and bullshit resistance enjoyed by a system with more metis than knowledge. (Derived from N. N. Taleb).

Arbitrage: Exploiting bullshit for profit.

Art: the process of creating information starting with bullshit.

Attention: contemplation of the truth value of data.

Authoritarian High Modernism: A formula used by cargo cults that have no Big Data capacity to create false justifications for acting dead. (Derived from James Scott).

Authoritah: Capacity for reality distortion.

Belief: Sincere acceptance of the truth or falsity of a piece of information.

Big Data: Data that is cheaper for a system to store than to sort into information, bullshit and noise (my modification of a definition due to George Dyson).

Bullshit: (1) Data (often a firehose) produced by someone who is indifferent to the truth or falsity of what is being said (my short version of  of Harry Frankfurt’s definition in On BullshitSee also, the Wikipedia summary). (2) Data that appears to contain more information than it actually does (my version, which I think is roughly equivalent). (3) Noise randomly tagged with truth-values to give it apparent legibility (4) Non-requisite variety.

Bozo: Somebody who emits a bullshit signal without being aware of it. Often, but not always, a consequence of Cluelessness.

Byzantine System: A system that can act with intelligence and creativity despite the presence of bullshit within it. Inspired by the notion of Byzantine fault tolerance in computer science. A byzantine system may be antifragile.

Cargo Cult: A system embodying a false consensus that bullshit is information, based on social proof among the Clueless. Cargo cults are social forms that emerge among those who act dead collaboratively.

Cluelessness: The inability to form true beliefs by telling information apart from bullshit.

Consensus: Shared beliefs among a number of independent actors concerning the truth or falsity of a set of data.

Creativity: The ability to turn noise into either information or bullshit.

Data: Any collection of information, bullshit and noise.

Data Science: Silicon Valley term for “statistics.” (orig. Jeremy Jarvis on Twitter)

Dimensionality: A measure of the amount of potential information in a data set.

Disruption: The outcome of a conflict between a cargo cult and a hunting party, resulting in the death of the former.

Diversity: The sum of the requisite and non-requisite variety in a system.

Death: Discontinuity in the information embodied by a system.

Ephemeralization: The natural conversion of signal into bullshit through creative destruction (derived from original definition due to Buckminister Fuller).

Extinction: Destruction of all systems embodying a particular set of information. Note that while information in the mathematical sense cannot be created or destroyed, embodiments of information in the sense of this glossary can be.

Falsehood: Information that is known to be inconsistent with the observed state of the world.

Favela: A system with significantly more Big Data than knowledge.

Favela Chic: Aestheticization of a favela. (derived from Bruce Sterling).

Firehose: A signal that ends up as Big Data.

Finite Game: A world view characteristic of a cargo cult (derived from James Carse’ Finite and Infinite Games). Embodied bullshit in motion.

Formula: A belief (or practice based on a belief) that cannot change as fast as reality can. Formulas are proceduralized bullshit and represent risk of ephemeralization.  Formulas represent the closest the Clueless can get to knowledge.

Fragility: The condition of a system embodying a lot of bullshit.

Gothic High Tech: Consciously weaponized bullshit. (Derived from Bruce Sterling).

Gollumization: The impoverishment of a system through ephmeralization and weaponized attention.

Hipsters: A cargo cult of aestheticizers who mistake themselves for artists.

Hunting Party: An idealized group of sociopaths whose consensual beliefs are based in reality rather than social proof. Cannot be distinguished from a cargo cult until a reality test has taken place.

Identity: Continuity in the information embodied by a system, sufficient to uniquely identify it.

Illegibility: Information or bullshit that looks like noise to those outside a system, due to the presence of a large amount of metis. (Derived from James Scott).

Infinite Game: The world view characteristic of hunting parties (derived from James Carse’ Finite and Infinite Games). Embodied information in motion.

Information: Data that has been judged to be true or false through comparison with observed reality at a given point in time.

Innovation: (1) The transformation experienced by a system as a consequence of intelligently embodying the information in a signal while retaining its identity. A necessary condition is that the system must have requisite variety commensurate to the dimensionality of the data being absorbed.

Intelligence: The ability to separate  bullshit from information. Editorial note: I came up with this after a Twitter exchange. @SameerPatel tweeted a Stephen Hawking quote, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” I replied with my 2014 translation, “the greatest enemy of signal is not noise but bullshit” which I then adapted into this definition.

Justification: Determination of the truth-value of data through comparison with observed reality.

Kool-Aid: Social pressure brought to bear on individuals to join a cargo cult by means of social proof.

Knowledge: Justified true belief about the truth value of information. (derived from Plato)

Legibility: the apparent absence of noise in data.

Lifestyle Design: Favela chic arbitrage.

Metaphysics: Bullshit that cannot be falsified and is occasionally useful.

Metis: A collection of formulas that work to maintain the identity of a system.

Noise: The component of data that is neither information nor bullshit and at risk of being prematurely discarded by Authoritarian High Modern systems seeking to create Gothic High Tech.

Pattern: Naturally occurring bullshit.

Pattern Recognition: The starting point of both intelligence and creativity, the separation of bullshit from noise, but preceding the separation of information from bullshit.

Program: A codified practice based on belief, with the potential to change as fast as reality. Contrast with formula.

Requisite Variety: The variety required in a system to absorb a signal of a given dimensionality. — Derived from concept proposed by Ross. W. Ashby (known as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety).

Reality: That which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.  — Philip K. Dick

Reality Distortion: Hiding reality temporarily behind bullshit.

Science: The programmatic practice of intelligence.

Secret: Something you believe that nobody else believes. Contrast with old definition based on information scarcity: something you know that nobody else knows. (Originally Peter Thiel, further evolved by Balaji Srinivasan and Chris Dixon). Holding secrets lead to socipathy.

Serendipity: Compounding and unexpected good luck that accrues to systems that do not act dead. Usually a consequence of continually discovering new natural data sets uncontaminated by bullshit, and therefore capable of being absorbed even by non-byzantine systems. Potentially evidence of antifragility.

Signal: Data moving from one system to another.

Sociopath: An intelligent and creative individual who does not drink kool-aid.

Software: A collection of programs and formulas that maintain the identity of a system.

Statistics: Weaponized pattern recognition. Statistics is neither scientific, nor non-scientific, but pre-scientific.

System: An agent (individual or collective) capable of holding data, beliefs about the truth or falsity of the data, acting on it through pattern recognition, statistics, metis, science and intelligence, and absorbing and producing signals.  Cargo cults and hunting parties are human systems.

Smarm: (1) an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone…. a variety of bullshit. — Tom Scocca, On Smarm(2) A form of acting-dead characteristic of cargo cults that imagine they are actually hunting parties.

Snark: Snark is often conflated with cynicism, which is a troublesome misreading. Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism…The practice of cynicism is smarm. — Tom Scocca, On Smarm(2) A form of acting-dead characteristic of cargo cults based on the belief that calling out bullshit and creating information are the same thing.

Social Proof: False justification that leads to false consensus on the truth or falsity of information, arrived at without truth value having been actually established. The collective, formulaic production of bullshit.

Technical Debt: Known bullshit that a system has committed to purging from itself.

Truth: Information that is known to be consistent with observed reality at a given time and capable of being unpredictably turned into falsehood by a change in reality in the future.

Truthiness: Smarmy bullshit. (My definition, based on Stephen Colbert’s).

Values: Unjustified justification procedures.

Variety: Diversity in a body of information that contributes to its dimensionality.

Weaponization: Separation of data into information and bullshit, and deliberate direction of the two signals at different systems (generally a hunting party and a cargo cult respectively), with the intention of creating serendipity in one system and zemblanity in another.

Zemblanity: Compounding bad luck that befalls those who act dead, leading to their eventual actual death.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Modern-day Ambrose Bierce

  2. “Hunting Party” needs a definition. It appears several times but I struggled to understand the nuance in the current context.

  3. Hunting Party has a definition, but it’s sorted based on the invisible “Q” at the beginning.

  4. Kyle Mathews says

    Data Scientist tweet—

  5. Christian Molick says

    Art and Aesthetics used this way make sense, but masks the way art and aesthetics can be used to constructively expose complexity, dissonance, strangeness. The distinction made here seems to be closer to the difference between pop art and folk art or romanticism and classicism. Boy band songs or dramatic performances staged with everyone wearing white face makeup and wigs fit these descriptions of art and aeshtetics, but other forms like impressionism, expressionism, and surrealism can also be useful for disrupting cargo cult bullshit with evocative truths. These are specific views of the art, like thinking of sales representatives as slick fish instead of the foundations of the bottom line.

    Identity seems basically right, yet seems to trivialize the extent to which systems tend to form goals based on concepts of perceived self-interest. Identity is among the strongest of all motivations.

    • Excellent thoughts there. I defined aestheticization (the process operating on an existing reality rather than creating things from scratch) rather than aesthetics to try and build in that distinction.

      Identity… yeah, there’s more that that might be worth unpacking with related definitions.

  6. Hi Venkat,

    I came across ribbonfarm yesterday through the satisfying discovery of your summary on corporations. Very illuminating, thanks, as is the advanced glossary making up this post : )

  7. Adveni sperans scribere Commentarios ubi quisque Reddit suam opinionem, sed nihil inveni meriti.

  8. A certain obsession with the excrements of bulls is all over the place in this dictionary, an anal repulsive incontinence, which must be very strong in the information society, the age where we are stepping out of the water again, this time directly into shit, as it seems, which is at least a positive sign that there has been animal life before on this planet. The article leaves us hobby ethnologists puzzled. If it is not intelligence that increases itself for itself as it was once hoped and for which there is little indication but the heap of excrements ( bit rotting programs, capital, …? ), what is the purpose of this peculiar cultural practice? Are we flies and does it nourish us or is the singularity lurking and already breaking through the shell and from there directly into our shit ( not that of bulls )?

    Another observation about the dictionary and the shit in it which begins to grow on me: shit is the only material object that is left. No other substance has its appearance. Of course shit is always residual: a rest from our bodies which is not us anymore. For H.Moravec life is structure + jelly and as you might guess he favors structure over jelly and this is the whole meaning of this silly distinction but now even the jelly is gone and only shit is left. But isn’t the structure also gone?

    • Yes, bullshit, like any kind of manure, is good fertilizer for the growth of the new.

      Frankfurt explores why there’s been an explosion in bullshit in recent decades in his essay. My own simple explanation is that capacity to store, transmit and process information has expanded far faster than our capacity to generate it. Bullshit is almost like a placeholder for the real thing, like fake datasets used to test the development of a software system before it can be populated with real data. Certain chicken-and-egg relationship there.

      That’s the system-theoretic explanation (at global level, variety of composite system exceeds dimensionality of data circulating in it, necessitating the production of bullshit to bootstrap the system). At the social and cultural level, bullshit is the currency of non-production, which is coincidentally high when a system is being displaced by a new one, since lots of people are struggling to transition.

      One way to think of this is that impending vast changes ephemaralize the old before they replace them. So the signal of the old becomes the test-bullshit of the new.

  9. As a long time reader, nothing in this glossary is a surprise, but summing things up in a pithy way can bring problems and tensions to the fore.

    I’m concerned about the distinction between noise and bullshit from an empirical “science” point of view. Both kinds of data have meaningless truth values, the difference is one of intent: bullshit serves someone’s interests and was deliberately created by them for that purpose. Since the deliberately hidden mental states of others are very hard to measure empirically, how do you propose one determines the difference in a “scientific” way?

    The best that seems possible is an educated guess based on one’s knowledge of interests and the political ways of the world.

    • I’d argue that noise has no truth value. It’s simply pre-justification.

      As for the how of bullshit detection as distinct from noise cancellation, I think the main clue is that if “information” is suspiciously quickly manufactured to explain new data, it is likely to be bullshit. Because as a rule of thumb, most new data that is not a completely transparent fit to existing valid models, represents problems that are non-trivial to figure out. If somebody “figures it out” too quickly, there’s a problem.

      For example, there is a whole lot of punditry going on right now about the future of Microsoft under Satya Nadella, the new CEO. A few are credible (long-time Microsoft watchers with a track record). But most are just bullshit waiting for a few quarters worth of performance data to come in.

      Overfitting is another sign. There’s been like 2 weeks worth of data on Nadella’s record as a CEO, yet some are tempted to offer models about his entire tenure to come.

  10. Boris Borcic says

    I feel your “Truth” denies information (and, to me, more exactly speech) to use verb tensing in a controlling way such that the speech itself and not changing reality, decrees _when_ both meet.

    • I thought I said the exact opposite: “capable of being unpredictably turned into falsehood by a change in reality in the future.” That to me is a statement that reality dictates when the test will occur, and provides no advance warning most of the time.

  11. Amadeus Rex says

    “Byzantine system” is a terrible name for a system that “can act with intelligence and creativity despite the presence of bullshit within it”, since “byzantine” is an adjective carries connotations of labyrinthine, recondite complexity.

    • Then again, Byzantium lasted a thousand years. Nearly two thousand if you count the Ottoman empire as a rebranded continuation, and the early Eastern Roman Empire as a prequel of sorts :)

      The definition is inspired by the distributed trust problem and the structure of bitcoin in particular. Bitcoin is complex in almost a byzantine way (it took me several days of reading and thinking to grasp the basic idea), but it seems necessary to build in bullshit tolerance.

      • I’m reminded of Philip Dick’s observation that “The Roman Empire never ended”.

      • You’re misusing the jargon. “Byzantine fault tolerance” is the ability to tolerate Byzantine faults. I think you’re interpreting it as a Byzantine ability to tolerate faults.
        A fault tolerant system can survive incompetence: a Byzantine fault tolerant system can survive malice too.

  12. I’m afraid your definition of “Information” is bullshit.

    Data can never be compared with reality — data can only be compared with other data.

    • Do you have a proposed alt definition?

      • How about a nice recursive definition:
        “Data whose truth value survives comparison with all other known information.”

        • Since Amasa is already hinting at it, your current definition of data already has circular references to it through bullshit, information, and noise.

          • Circularity is not a bug, it’s a feature of all relativist epistemologies based on falsification rather than verification. If you could remove that core cycle, you’d have a notion of absolute truth.

            Amasa’s definition retains the circularity. He’s getting at a procedural subtlety problem rather than conceptual one with the original definition.

  13. Here’s an alternative definition of sociopath: One who attempts to weaponize the data that they self-produce.

  14. Nice, thanks for the glossary. I understand most of the words already, but that was a great consolidation of your entire thinking thus far, VGR

    see y’all at the refactor


  15. Mark Clifton says

    You’ve distilled as good a definition of art as I’ve seen. (I’ve always avoided overly generous “but is it art?” discussions as juvenile, because of course for there to be “art” there must be “not art.”) Your definition generalizes art into a practice, distinct from aesthetics or production, which means it can be applied to areas outside what we typically think of as “the arts.” Art may produce an object or situation, but to confuse the product with the process is to become a hipster. An outcome that’s produced by an art-like process that’s not art is decoration, or at best maybe design.

    Your definition of “hipster” addresses some of the main things that peeve me about that subculture (and the dominant global, urban popular culture it informs, to the point I find it increasingly difficult to separate it as a subculture): the transparent bogosity of its aesthetics, and its confusion of aesthetic with artistic processes (“aestheticizers who mistake themselves for artists”).

    Like many a good cargo cult, hipsters ritualize procedures in hopes of replicating previous outcomes (in this case, products and relationships that carry a feeling of a certain kind of genuineness that is transmitted from origins that are information rather than bullshit rich), without retaining the necessary processes. The information-generating process of art has been replaced by a charade that is bullshit all the way through. A friend of mine has a theory that a primary motivation for hipster obsession with proofs of authenticity established on the past, and the resulting lumberjack/speakeasy aesthetic, is to carry out roleplaying scenarios that seek to reset history precisely to the point where they feel authenticity was lost, in an effort to figure out how it all went wrong.

    Recently, I’ve begun describing this kind of aesthetic-product-masquerading-as-art-procedure as pornographic. If I may humbly offer a half-baked definition from my own glossary:

    Pornography: a simulation that satisfies the same reward centers as carrying out the genuine act, but with less apparent effort.

    Following this definition, if there’s a moral argument that can be made for pornography’s negative influence, it’s that it stifles real creativity and value by insidiously replacing them with cheaper facsimiles. Though the immediate costs seem lower, long-term costs can be high. Who cares if you didn’t actually accomplish anything, as long as you’re still basking in the rosy afterglow of accomplishment? I think there are many phenomena that can be pinned to this motivation, from the ritualistic language of the Clueless to popular culture’s recombinant aesthetics (“Darth Hello Kitty”). This seems to be a dominant ethos of our time, but perhaps as you pointed out in your reply to Kay it’s proliferating as a means to cope with transition.

    If we’re to get cheeky and slightly mean sounding, a hipster is an art pornographer.

  16. Andy Tribble says

    Interesting comment, Mark, but… Let me summarise your position as it appears to me:
    ‘Hipster’ = ‘fake’ pursuit of the ‘real’.

    Surely it’s still better to be in pursuit of the real. Better than not.

    But they’re not working hard enough.

    • Does “hipster” still means anything, specifically?

      Sometimes a hipster channels what is new and hot in pop culture, then it is a graphic designer, i.e. someone who makes a living from a practical art or more generally being an artisan. Finally it is someone who wears horn-rims because nerds appear to be the resilient information age species with lots of futurity. In the latter case the nerd would be the real thing, though their own culture is full of BS and fashion driven including academic one which can be easily adopted to pretend even better futurity. Hipsters simulate other hipsters. No bottom of recursion in sight.

      • Mark Clifton says

        It would be easy to be evasive and say hipsterdom is like pornography – you know it when you see it – but I have seriously been trying to form a more concrete definition. One reason is an attempt to avoid sliding into casual bigotry against a particular subculture, and another is that I think the phenomenon serves as a canary in a coal mine regarding real, juicy issues of cultural stagnation and malaise as a reaction to massive cultural and technological change. I’ve tried to guide my thinking by differentiating behaviors I think are hipster from those that are not hipster, and figuring out what unifies all those in the hipster category.

        I’ve come to a conclusion that’s similar to my friend’s: that hipster in the subcultural sense is a state of mind that fixates on authenticity (perhaps purity in almost a religious sense), and almost exclusively uses arbitrary historical references as proofs of that authenticity. These references are cherry picked from various points in history, each from just before the hipster believes authenticity in that particular realm was lost (Prohibition, assembly line manufacturing of consumer goods, personally needing to adopt adult responsibilities, etc.). Since proofs are not confined to a single era, hipsterdom can derive its tropes from many, seemingly disparate points in their culture’s and their practitioners’ own personal histories: artisanal methods of production, pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes, 1980s mass media, summer camp and childhood games (coming in close second place to the cliche “authenticity” is “whimsy”). iDevices and the Internet can be integrated into a hipster worldview, because they carry no strong authenticity proofs from the past. However, other technologies that have changed significantly, even recently, are reset to their respective authentic moments (film photography, tape recording, vinyl records).

        Sure, this thinking informs a fashion convention, but not all those who wear the fashion or live the lifestyle are hipsters, though I find almost everyone who thinks in a hipster way adopts the fashion (similar to any other fashion that originates from a subculture of True Believers that goes mainstream, like hippie or punk).

  17. Horse shit is better than bull shit. You can apply it directly to the soil without burning the plants. Mild and gentle is the horse (shit). Simply put, I would rather horse around than bully pulpit.
    As to fashion, let’s really be clear. It is cowardice. I know, I made a living at it. One of life’s greatest fears is to be unfashionable. We preyed upon that fear and made money. And isn’t it interesting how anti-fashion becomes so fashionable so fast? It’s similar to religion. But the best part is the renaming. “Mid-century” takes the cake. We went to several furniture stores this week. How did boring square 1950’s sofas become popular again? Because they are not what was before and someone “discovered” how cool it is! But it was before and I left the store…it was such a bore. It’s like long hair and no hair and short skirts and long skirts. Tan or no tan. I need not continue. But I must ask: will this cycle of recycle never end? Nothing is new or old, just resurrected and retold.
    Will there ever be a time when function and comfort will rule? Will fashion ever (please) die? Will we begin to fix things instead of them throwing them out? Will we learn how to use things intelligently before we make them obsolete? Will technology with no need indeed be the fashion of the future? Ooops…that happened already, didn’t it?
    And please, if you hear that I have been sent to jail for strangling the fellow walking around Whole Foods talking loudly into his Blue Tooth thingie about architectural integrity while I am trying to decide which mushrooms to buy, please visit and bring me some oatmeal raisin cookies.

    • Will fashion ever (please) die?

      A friend of mine was once business manager of a fashion store. I asked her back then about this years fashion and she responded to me somewhat evasively in the way of: wear what you like. I didn’t wanted to raise my individuality though but on the contrary, becoming legible fashion-wise i.e. participate on a code and a social system. This isn’t much fun though if no one cares about the code, if it becomes arbitrary and its readers fade away.

      Will we begin to fix things instead of them throwing them out?

      Sure, this is more of a trend or paradigm but a fashion. One can see related ideas popping up everywhere. Take food: the Avantgarde kitchen is scientific/molecular or regional, a paradigm which seems to include using the whole of the fruit or vegetable including leafs and so on. This paradigm is now explored. A fashion happens to be orthogonal to this. For example it was fashionable to use ginger everywhere. Next year it might be manioc or whatever African is in your Whole Foods store. Or this happened yesteryear and I’m already outdated …

  18. Smart idiot – a highly-educated person that knows nothing of practical value.

  19. After failing to resist yet another trolling thread, I’ve come to another realisation. Many of these threads are populated by well meaning people repeating anecdotes and then using them as justification for their own preconceived thinking. So I’d like to propose:-

    Anecdata: A form of data consisting of a collection of anecdotes and containing a higher than usual proportion of bullshit and noise and less actual information.

  20. Self-licking lollipop: an endeavor fueled by its own bullshit.