Too Much Information?

Saturday, February 5, 2011 -- 4:00 PM
Ken Taylor

Our topic this week is information – specifically,  too much Information.   Now I can hear someone wondering,  “Too much information for what?”  To answer that question, we need to go back in time.  Some of you will be too young to remember, but once upon a time, if you wanted to find a book, for example, you went to this place called a library.  And you searched in this ancient artifact -- a thing called a card catalog.  The card catalog gave you a number that was assigned to the book.   And the books were all shelved in order in dusty old library stack.  

I really do have  fond memories  those days -- and not just because library stacks could be good places to procrastinate instead of studying.  LIbrary stacks were places were serendipitous discoveries happened. Sometimes, when you got the catalog number and went to where the book was supposed to be,  it wasn’t there.  But even then, you could browse around for other things that you wanted, since the books were all neatly arranged in a nice tidy order, with similar books next to each other on the library shelf.  I used to love whiling away the hours, browsing through library stacks like that.

But that’s not to say there weren't  downsides to this search method.   There were actually lots of them.  Suppose, for example, that you originally came looking for a book on, say, the US Civil War,  but decided that you really needed to browse through all the books about any Civil War, whatsoever, no matter when or where they happened.  And suppose you wanted to know not just about the histories of various civil wars, but about their role in reshaping subsequent philosophical thought.   The  old library catalog just didn’t have category for “everything having anything to do with some civil war or other throughout History.”    So there wasn’t an easy way, using it,  to find books about Civil Wars in general, their histories, and their different impacts.    Plus,  even if you did manage, through a lot of catalog searching, to generate a list of all the different books about all the different Civil Wars, and their cultural and philosophical implications, you’d have to spend hours physically tracking down the books, section by section, because they would probably be spread out all over the library.   

Wouldn’t it be infinitely better if the library could instantly re-categorize and re-shelve the books to suit your needs as a would-be browser?   How could doubt that?   But that’s precisely what an online, searchable database does really well.   In the digital age, we can have multiple, simultaneous, ever-shifting categories, made up on the fly.  And once all books, newspapers, magazines – you name it – go fully digital we won’t even have to worry about how books are arranged on an actual physical shelf.  We’ll be able to rearrange the books on the virtual shelf in an instant to anyone’s liking.

That sounds really cool – especially to the lover of all things all things technological and new in me.  But I have to admit that part of me still finds something at least a little bit satisfying about the old ways.  Those old fixed categories and well-ordered shelves weren’t there just because of the limits of the old technology.  They represented somebody’s best estimation of the proper divisions of human knowledge.  They carried some weight because they were backed by the authority of an intellectual tradition.  In the brave new user driven rather than authority driven digital world, where seemingly anything goes, where categories are made up on the fly, where the virtual shelf can be rearranged at the whim of the user, what separates the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, the silly from the serious?

One could easily worry that in this  brave new user driven digital age we are just at sea on a chaotic ocean of information.  The user may have too much power, backed by too little authority.   Hence our topic:  Too much information!   And luckily, we don’t have to try to navigate this sea alone.  We’ve got the help of someone who has thought long and hard about both these opportunities and challenges.  That would be,   David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. 

Comments (8)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 5, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

WHO HAS THE AUTHORITY TO PRIORITISE INFORMATION?

WHO HAS THE AUTHORITY TO PRIORITISE INFORMATION?
This is like the question, investigated in the show on History, ?who gets to write history,? and what is the effect on history of the historian. Much of this depends on the social valuation and conventions in place at the time: see Searle, ?Making the Social World,? the subject of another very useful show.
The problem is not having too much information, the problem is 1. faulty information, and 2. unqualified editors. Those with the expertise to edit the great miscellany for us are the true heroes of our culture: small press editors, art gallery owners, performing arts presenters, restaurant critics, etc. They edit the vast cultural landscape, and give us what is worthy, based on their expertise. Stuff like Zagat, Yelp and Wikkipedia let everyone be authoritative regardless of qualifications ? hyper-democracy is full of wrong and dangerous ideas; hyper-egalitarianism denigrates and devalues expertise.
The other danger comes from the word and syntax searching mechanism (which I am sure all out there are using). The old way of doing research was to come up with an IDEA, based on study and experiment, and then to keep notes on the IDEA in practice, and finally make some conclusions about theory. Think of the mechanism of WORD searching: it supplants IDEA exploration. I think by the substitution of word searching for idea research, our idea capabilities will atrophy.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 5, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

You have raised a lot of problems, without giving

You have raised a lot of problems, without giving any answers. Maybe that?s a good thing. It?s borring to live in a world full of clearness.
Back to the topic, in my opinion, we face a breakdown of an ancient order and we aren?t able to manage the new one.
We are in a desperate need of regulating ideas ? those ideas which provide us a description of the ?scene? and give a meaning to our search.
Yes, this world, unfortunately, lacks regulating ideas. And above all lacks those ?authorities? which are supposed to bring them on the surface. If you have strong regulating ideas, you?ll find that information is as much as you need.
Greetings,
Lucian

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

yes, you seem particularly affected by too much in

yes, you seem particularly affected by too much information.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

The reality of TMI---something I have been concern

The reality of TMI---something I have been concerned with for nearly ten years---seems finally beginning to surface. I wondered when the realization would over shadow the infatuation; when common sense would trump popular culture. Affirmation is comforting. I may yet get that book finished and published. We shall see.
Thanks for bringing the topic to the PT table. It is timely and on point.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Sorry, it is not TMI it is laziness in accepting t

Sorry, it is not TMI it is laziness in accepting the first page of the search engine. Wiki or the Pop Sci article is simply a start. Follow the links and the references in the links and you might find what you need.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, February 7, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I remember reading McLuhan's books on media and in

I remember reading McLuhan's books on media and information, and later, things like Future Shock and The Third Wave by Toffler. Mr. Patino says that someone among us (I'm not sure to whom he is referring)is"particularly affected by too much information." I would submit to our host and commenters-at-large that we are all particularly affected---all of us anyway who follow the media mode of paying attention to it all.
And that is just the point, actually. Media is intended to affect us. Deeply. It makes people and conglomerates extremely wealthy and drives a huge segment of economies, local; national and global. I am certain there are profit/loss figures available which might boggle our minds. And that is another aspect of TMI which has insinuated itself into our twenty-first century milieu: we have been persuaded that there is no way we could ever get along without it, and how did we ever do so in the first place? The sales pitch has been relentless. And successful. Most everyone believes the propaganda, and this makes it true---something we playfully call: self-fulfilling prophecy. Isn't it great to be us?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, February 7, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Yes, a few years ago, my wife wanted me to carry a

Yes, a few years ago, my wife wanted me to carry a cell phone into the field when I went deer hunting. I was amused by her suggestion and told her that deer do not carry cellphones and that even if they did, I suspected they would not pick up. She was not amused. But I still go hunting sans cellphone. That's just how it is done.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 10, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

There's so much here that made me think that its e

There's so much here that made me think that its energized me even without my morning cup of coffee.
On the one hand, this makes me think of Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 and the concept of information entropy. At what point does to much information simply become, well, noise?
That being said, Tim posited a very good question in terms regarding the effect of the historian on history, in this case, the effect of "library science" on our creating a knowledge paradigm. These orderly shelves with the coded books create a non-fluid system for organizing our knowledge, and by extension, they define how we categorize and organize our knowledge, our understanding, etc. The open nature of the searchable, open database has given us an unprecedented fluidity in our contextualizing and categorizing information, and in turn, i think at least to some extent, that has fundamentally changed the way we know.
Regarding the codes themselves, at one point, the academic becomes initiated in the language of the library, of the card catalogs, of the arcane codes written on the spine of the books we love. This adds a division between "us" and the rest of the world who would be quite lost if they found themselves amidst the stacks of a university library. The internet has freed the information and left it there for the taking. Good or bad? I'm not making that judgement...
Thanks for the food for thought this morning! Now for some coffee...

 

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