Information Overload

One of the serious side effects of living in the 21st century is the incredible amount of intrusive information that comes our way every day.  I’m not just talking about crap either but high grade ore suitable for framing.  I found out Berlusconi was going down for the count while I was standing in line at McDonald’s, probably before some of his own party members knew it.  Most people will tell you this is a good thing: that information is power (and all that other claptrap.)  This is not true.  Giving too much information to people who don’t want it, need it, or understand it is a dangerous thing.  Information is like any other commodity: when supply overwhelms demand its value decreases.

Let me give you an absurd example.  The Louvre has one of the greatest collections of art in the world.  There’s enough paint on canvas there to wallpaper an entire condo development — with lots left over.  However, talk to any ordinary person (read “non art student”) who’s been there, and after they mention the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and a few others, they invariably run out of things to say.  That’s not because all the other works are second rate.  There’s one huge room filled with wall-to-wall Rubens, for example (which, by the way, was actually commissioned as wallpaper by one of the Medici girls.)  No, it’s because there’s simply too much to see.  At the end of two hours (three hours, max!) the average person just can’t take any more.  The senses shut down, fold up their tents and wander off.  The bratty kid, ying-yanging on the guardrail, gets equal attention to the Titian hanging on the wall behind her.  People just can’t process that much stuff in that length of time.  It’s difficult enough to appreciate the intricacies of a single masterpiece in isolation; it’s impossible to do it when you’ve upped the ante by a thousand.

Information works the same way.  Here’s another absurd example.  There have probably been more words written about the Kardashians this week than anybody else on the planet.  The mega-hours of reporting Kim’s wooing, wedding, build-up and breakup when laid end to end (pardon the old pun) would likely last longer that the marriage itself.  Yet, despite tons of information, even the harshest Kardashifan has no idea what’s going on.  The whole sordid spectacle could be anything from a brilliantly executed publicity stunt to the tragicest love story in the history of Reality TV.  Mere information is helpless if you’re looking into the heart of a Kardashian.

Out of sheer self defence many people make a couple of big mistakes when dealing with the volumes of information coming at them.  First of all, they confuse information with knowledge.  While knowledge is especially useful in a world that’s travelling faster than a speeding Tweet, information on its own is the closest thing you can get to useless without actually going there.  In fact, it’s actually detrimental.  Just because you know something, doesn’t mean you understand it – and that can cause problems.  For example, back when I cared about such things, I knew a bunch of stuff about cars.  I could open the hood and tell you where things were and what they did.  However, even then, as I found out a couple of times, give me a wrench and you better call a tow truck.  I had information but no understanding, and without understanding, I couldn’t postulate far enough to solve even minor problems.  In order to make a reasonable assessment of anything, you have to understand it, not just recognize it exists.

The second big mistake people make about information is assuming it’s an end unto itself.  It isn’t.  Information is the raw material that we build things out of, it is not the final product.  Even though I know the attributes of a right angle triangle, that doesn’t make me Pythagoras.   I might think I am, but unless I have a practical application for a2 + b2 = c2, it could be written in Greek for all the good it does me.  Most of the tons of information we receive is like that: we hardly ever apply it.  It lies dormant; its usefulness wasted by benign neglect.  Essentially, it’s like sitting on the sofa getting all the answers (Questions?) correct on Jeopardy: if we aren’t contestants we’re never going to win any money.  It’s not the information we have that counts; it’s what we do with it.

Here in the 21st century, we believe there is intrinsic value in the possession of information.   We think a well-informed population will naturally make well-informed decisions.  While this is basically true, the problem comes from the minor annoyance that the general population is not well-informed, at all.  They merely have access to information; they’re two different things.  Without understanding and application, the information we do have is useless.  In fact, the tsunami of data that assaults us every day is actually a hindrance to informed decision-making.  Not only do we think we already have the information we need, but in many cases our brains have already shut down from information overload.  Therefore, we have to rely on those comfortable sound bytes and buzzwords we already know to guide us.  The problem is that just isn’t real information: is it?

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