27 Jul 2013
In the era of big data, we’re confronted by the question Brenda Somich recently blogged: How do you handle information overload? “Does today’s super-connected and informative online environment allow us to work to our potential?” Somich asked. “Is all this information really making us smarter?”
I have blogged about how much of the unstructured data that everyone is going gaga over is gigabytes of gossip and yottabytes of yada yada digitized. While most of our verbalized thoughts were always born this way, with word of mouth becoming word of data, big data is making little data monsters of us all.
In a way, we have become addicted to data. In her post, Somich discussed how we have become so obsessed with checking emails, news feeds, blog posts, and social media status updates, that even after hours of using information have gone by, we are still searching for our next data fix. Our smartphones have become our constant companions, ever-present enablers reminiscent of the nickname that the once most popular smartphone went by — CrackBerry.
In his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers explained that “in the sixteenth century, when information was physically piling up everywhere, it was the ability to erase some of it that afforded a sense of empowerment and control.”
“In contrast, the digital information that weighs on us today exists in a nonphysical medium, and this is part of the problem. We know it’s out there, and we have words to represent and quantify it. An exabyte, for instance, is a million million megabytes. But that doesn’t mean much to me. Where is all that data, exactly? It’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We’re physical creatures who perceive and know the world through our bodies, yet we now spend much of our time in a universe of disembodied information. It doesn’t live here with us, we just peer at it through a two-dimensional screen. At a very deep level of the consciousness, this is arduous and draining.”
Without question, big data is forcing us to revisit information overload. But sometimes it’s useful to remember that the phrase is over forty years old now — and it originally expressed the concern, not about the increasing amount of information, but about our increasing access to information.
Just because we now have unprecedented access to an unimpeded expansion of information doesn’t mean we need to access it right now. Just because disembodied information is everywhere doesn’t mean that our bodies need to consume it.
One thing we must do, therefore, to avoid such snafus as the haunting hyper-connected hyperbole of the infinite inbox, is acknowledge the infinitesimal value of most of the information we consume.
When you are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information you have access to, stop for a moment and consider how underwhelming most of it is. I think part of the reason we keep looking for more information is because we’re so unsatisfied with the information we’ve found.
Although information overload is a real concern and definitely does frequently occur, far more often I think it is information underwhelm that is dragging us down.
How much of the content of those emails, news feeds, blog posts, and social media status updates you read yesterday, or even earlier today, do you actually remember? If you’re like me, probably not much, which is why we need to mind the gap between our acquisition and application of information.
As Anton Chekhov once said, “knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.” By extension, consuming information is of no value unless you put it to use. And an overwhelming amount of the information now available to us is so underwhelming that it’s useless to consume.