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March 9, 2012

[2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2)

Yesterday I tried to explain my sense that we’re not really suffering from information overload, while of course acknowledging that there is vastly more information out there than anyone could ever hope to master. Then a comment from Alex Richter helped me clarify my thinking.

We certainly do at times feel overwhelmed. But consider why you don’t feel like you’re suffering from information overload about, say, the history of stage costumes, Chinese public health policy, the physics of polymers, or whatever topic you would never have majored in, even though each of these topics contains an information overload. I think there are two reasons those topics don’t stress you.

First, and most obviously, because (ex hypothesis) you don’t care about that topic, you’re not confronted with having to hunt down some piece of information, and that topic’s information is not in your face.

But I think there’s a second reason. We have been taught by our previous media that information is manageable. Give us 23 minutes and we’ll give you the world, as the old radio slogan used to say. Read the daily newspaper — or Time or Newsweek once a week — and now you have read the news. That’s the promise implicit in the old media. But the new medium promises us instead edgeless topics and endless links. We know there is no possibility of consuming “the news,” as if there were such a thing. We know that whatever topic we start with, we won’t be able to stay within its bounds without doing violence to that topic. There is thus no possibility of mastering a field. So, sure, there’s more information than anyone could ever take in, but that relieves us of the expectation that we will master it. You can’t be overwhelmed if whelming is itself impossible.

So, I think our sense of being overwhelmed by information is an artifact of our being in a transitional age, with old expectations for mastery that the new environment gives the lie to.

No, this doesn’t mean that we lose all responsibility for knowing anything. Rather, it means we lose responsibility for knowing everything.

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