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[2b2k] From information overload to knowledge overload

[I’m not sure how much of a commentary I’m going to blog about the course of writing my new book, Too Big to Know. Here’s a first post. It makes me personally uncomfortable to talk about this process, so I may not continue to do so. Also, please note the “2b2k” in the title, providing you with an instant way of recognizing posts you want to skip.]

I’ve spent a couple of days writing an opening that I think doesn’t work, although I can probably use it elsewhere in the book. And now I am stopped by the need to choose a fork.

The opening looks at the history of information overload, going back to the book Future Shock, and pointing to the coining of “sensory overload” in 1950. I look at how pathetically small was the amount of info that seemed threatening to us back then. And I point at research (especially by Ann Blair and Richard Yeo) on information overload in the 16th-18th centuries. (Yes, I have the Seneca quote as well). All this is in service of the point that information overload has changed now that it’s gone exponentially exponential [thanks for the link, Linda Stone] and is so much a part of our ordinary context.

Next, I think I want to gesture at one way of understanding the change: We now face “knowledge overload.” But, the point of the book is that knowledge is no longer what it once was, so I don’t want to point to ordinary cases of knowing things; I fundamentally disagree with the idea that knowledge is to information as information is to data. So, I’m thinking that I might here use an example that will show the reader that this is a real, concrete issue, and it is not exactly the issue that she probably assumes it is from the fact that I’m talking about “knowledge.”

Or maybe I should jump straight into explaining what knowledge has been, since I’m trying to get to a section on the history of facts.

Fortunately, it’s lunch time. I choose the metal fork!

15 Responses to “[2b2k] From information overload to knowledge overload”

  1. Silly question, but is it actually possible to experience “knowledge overload”?

    Isn’t knowledge a relative thing that only exists when data (information/experiences) is combined with personal insight? If we don’t have that insight, or can’t remember it, then doesn’t it become a case failing to meet our “knowledge potential”?

    If this is the case the don’t we experience the opposite – a knowledge deficit.
    i.e. We know we should know more than we know.

    * This is probably all explained by your hinting that ‘knowledge is no longer what it once was’.

  2. Isn’t knowledge overload what happens when you have tried to absorb so much information so quickly that the pathway breaks down and you can no longer control or collate the information so that you can’t produce something that makes sense? Not aphasia, exactly, but something similar.

    For example, when I go to bed and can’t sleep because my brain keeps trying to make connections between the bits of information to produce a cocrete fact or idea, that is knowledge overload.

  3. I for one enjoy reading about your thought processes. As a reader, I would prefer to know the conclusion first (and not jumping straight into what knowledge has been).

  4. Barbara – at that stage in the comprehension process is it fair to call that “stuff” knowledge?
    Before we can call something knowledge doesn’t the source data need to be consumed, refined and stored for later application?

    If you are lying in bed thinking about something you’ve just read you are in the middle of that refining process. At that stage you haven’t actually acquired new knowledge, but you may have formed a set of knowledge expectations.
    i.e. If I keep processing this data I will have acquired ‘X’ amount of knowledge.

    If this is the case we never reach a state of knowledge overload – we simply don’t have the ability to process all that data. However, with the quantity of information at our fingertips we can often be left feeling we haven’t reached our knowledge potential.

  5. So, without intending to, I’ve been misleading. Probably not for the last time. I threw a term at you, and you’ve not only reasonably filled in what I meant by it, you’ve started a discussion of it. Nice.

    The truth is that I’m not 100% sure what I mean by “knowledge overload,” and it may not turn out to be a useful concept for what I’m writing. Writing a book like this really is more like writing fiction than any of us should be comfortable with :) Just as fiction writers often say that their characters dictate the turns of the story, in the same way, in a book like this, the ideas and the terms for those ideas are shaped by what will work in telling the larger “story” for the reader.

    But, I do have some idea of what I mean by “knowledge overload.” I know at leaset that I intend to draw a strong contrast with info overload. KO changes the nature of knowledge the way IO does not change the nature of information (although IO of course changes how we manage info).

    Thank you for the comments and thoughts. These are helpful to me as I feel my way forward.

  6. Is knowledge overload indicated when one can converse intelligently about any number of esoteric subjects, with expertise gained at the expense of time and effort better spent on things more germaine to one’s own life?

  7. Interesting theme. We can prevent information overload by applying filters but can we apply filters to knowledge to prevent its overload?

    What kind of filters could they be ?

    However, as excess of information does not lead to knowledge, the excess of knowledge does not lead to meaning and to wisdom – so – we need to know how to manage KO…

    I will look forward what will your new book bring to these interesting matters …

  8. taking a step back to data and information.

    I like to think that when data is aggregated and can be given meaning, we are then dealing with information. Sequentially, when information is put together in context with an objective in mind, we are talking about Content.

    David Harrison’s idea is also interesting, but allow me to adapt it a bit: knowledge can be Content applied to a context, based on personal insight and requirements of the situation. In other words, when in a determined context we choose to apply content based on it’s relevance and our experience to make a decision, that can constitute knowledge.

    Content is not something that we have access too immediately, it is sometimes created and adapted on the fly based on data and information.

    Knowledge overload, if it exists, would then be our inability to choose the most relevant response to a situation (by means of Content).

    … does it make sense?

  9. I am totally on board with the idea of knowledge overload (and glad that you are the one who will take on the subject and frame it, as you have done so thoughtfully with other critical aspects of our evolving society).

    Still, I wonder how much of the knowledge potential of the world we are truly tapping? There are all sorts of studies about how only a fraction of the people participating in any community online actually represent most of the content. There are still significant digital divide issues around the world. And you see languages dying off, stories not being told, facts being manipulated for certain narrow gains, etc. Yes, I think we are experiencing a potential knowledge overload… but is it the right knowledge that we need, the right solutions to challenging problems, the right ideas for bettering our society, the most diverse set of perspectives? Or, is it a flood of knowledge (and information) that isn’t representative of the full knowledge that is available, but we haven’t figured out how to tap into yet?

    Anyway, great focus and subject. Can’t wait to read it.

  10. And I can’t wait to have written it, Brian :)

    You point to an important fact. Not only are we at the beginning of the steep upturning of the amount of knowledge, knowledge (as a property of networks) will contain more and more differences of every sort. For me, that is perhaps the biggest change in the nature of knowledge.

    Bruno, yes, it makes sense to me. I want to look at this phenomenon more at a social scale, though.

  11. David the process of writing your book is véry interesting. This can elaborate on the content of the book. Giving us more information on the content can lead to new knowledge. Hopefully without the overload. Applying this knowledge in several contexts can give you wisdom that leads to a more interesting book that will help the world getting a better understanding of this important subject. So interacting with us becomes applied science. This should also be a subject in your book: better ways of disemination of knowledge, valueing people to do so and ways of interacting effectively are the keypoints to prevent knowledge overload imho.

  12. The new bestsellers will be books that are the result of a more collaborative effort because that way its content is based on a richer platform of knowledge and ideas. These books have a wider range of examples and give more value because they are written from a multidisciplinary perspective.

  13. David, I’ve been re-reading McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”, would it help to bring in the role that transmitters of knowledge play in information overload? Even separate and apart from the content, after all, “the medium is the message” … his discussion of sensory reallocation seems pertinent. Cheers.

  14. […] [2b2k] From information overload to knowledge overload- Joho the Blog, December 16, 2009 […]

  15. David, I agree that information overload and knowledge overload are fundamentally different.

    To me, the thing about knowledge is its synergy – how it magnifies when complementary bits of knowledge are combined. And considering the large number of ways that a piece of knowledge can be combined (e.g. how many ways is Ohm’s Law applied), the number of combinations are staffering.

    As the amount of knowledge expands, the time to absorb it becomes the limiting factor, and the result is overload.

    Some sacrifice depth of understanding for breadth. Others sacrifice breadth, and drill deeper into a narrow field.

    In the process, communication (with deep comprehension) gets compromised.

    One side effect of this seems to be a shift in balance between expression and response. How many documents go unreviewed, how many texts go unread?

    Knowledge is a bit like electicity. Without a complete circuit, there is no flow. And without a little resistance to the flow (discussion, argument), there is no light.

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