Information Overload, Confidence Underload

I was thinking about the amount of information anyone has access to today compared to when I was a kid. Doing a quick Google search for “information increase rate” led to this link which states information doubles every two (2) years. While I have absolutely NO way to prove or disprove this claim, experience since the last millennium suggests it could be valid. In any case, it meets or exceeds CEFGW standards (Close Enough For Government Work). In fact, even if it’s ten years for the double point, there is clearly more information today than there was yesterday.

Back when I was in school, THE go-to for information was the massive, 24 volume Encyclopedia Britannica (henceforth referred to as EB). Taking nearly 4 feet of linear space on the library shelf, it was the gold standard for writing papers or doing science projects. Listed as a resource in your bibliography, you were never questioned about the validity of the information in your documents. [Sadly, my family never owned the EB, rather the lesser valued Funk and Wagnalls version. The scars while not visible on the outside never the less reside deep within my psyche to this day.] Along with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, equipped with it’s own table to support the sheer weight of the tomb and the required magnifying glass to read its micro-font print), the library was the hub and home of all the information you could ever need or imagine.

Today, it appears most libraries are storehouses for DVDs and sources for off-line music. It is much more likely (and “convenient”) to grab your device and “smurf the web” for whatever information you need. And more than you need…or want. Since you are (as far as I know) reading this by means of the internet, you already know what I am talking about.  Easy, right?

But… there is a proverb that says “the man with one watch knows what time it is; the man with two is never sure.” The issue is not information, but rather confidence. There is so much information available (and, inevitably, not all in agreement), the problem is that of determining which information to believe. As a kid, when I got an answer, I KNEW it was right. Today, not so much. That Google search above resulted in “About 1,010,000,000 results (0.41 seconds)” and I only looked at the first page of results. I don’t mind using the info listed above regarding doubling rates but I would certainly hesitate if I had to risk my job on its accuracy.

And many people (my hand is up on this one, too) use the web as a source for making  medical or financial decisions, perhaps without fully understanding the potential dangers of accessing too much information. In essence, you are “trusting” the search engine to be wise enough to provide you with the relevant information you need to make rational, reasonable choices. I suspect real lives and money lies in the cross-hairs of this technology. And I, for one, am at least a little frightened at this thought.

Now, I am NOT a Luddite, nor would I suggest going back to the EB as the only fount of wisdom, knowledge, and minor hernias for little kids. I still use (and intend to do so) the WWW as a source for data prior to making critical (and not so important) decisions. I would suggest, then, using another ancient source that is available and nearly as effective for obtaining information: the librarian!

Well, maybe that is too specific an answer, but seeking input from other people (average ones as well as experts) to help make decisions is both wise and farsighted. Other people have access to experience and knowledge that you don’t. They also know people that have additional experience and knowledge (remember that “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” thing that went around years ago?) and in a short time you can have a vast source of additional input to help you make decisions. (In fairness, most of these other resources will also go on the web to get their knowledge…so maybe it’s not quite as effective as it was a decade ago, but you get the drift.)

In any case, my point is the more you look, the more you find, the more choices you can make, the more uncertainty develops about making the optimal choice. My suggestion is to pause a moment before you take action based on bulk information from the world. A sanity check is always a good idea and often a sanity saver before leaping off a tall building. Maybe gravity won’t apply to you this time after all, but…

Good hunting. One thing I am certain of… I now have a headache thinking about all this. Perhaps a nap is in order?


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One thought on “Information Overload, Confidence Underload

  1. Pingback: Scam Alert: Quantum Vision System | Phred the Elder

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