Information overload


I stumbled across a great article written by Nicholas Carr, who in 2003 wrote the Harvard Business Review article “IT Doesn’t Matter” which reminds us of the cold calculating computer HAL 9000 from the all time fave movie 2001:

Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

The article is specifically aimed at Google – Is Google Making Us Stupid? – but has a very importnat question to ask about how quickly the semination of knowledge is occurring and how as a race we are dealing with managing such increasing information and the speed of it’s storage and retrieval.

We all know how hard it is to personally keep up even with our favourite leisure subjects, while at work management systems that are built to help us organise information creak at the seams as they try and make our businesses more successful.

I don’t think it’s just the inevitability of pregress that means the next generation is always hot on the heals of the last in their increased abilities to learn and digest information but that it is the human brain itself that will fail to be able to keep up with what is required.

The dystopian vision of many science fiction writers may well be upon us and from an angle we least suspected. We will ultimately have to rely on machines to make decisions for us based on crunching huge amounts of data that as individuals, or groups we are so avidly eager to generate and ingest.

Wikipedia is a great example of humankinds ability to make progress with information management but it’s been around for 7 years now.

Even Google’s search has reached the limits of it’s usefulness. Google now admit that they need user input in announcing Google Knol, with a Digg type functionality that allows the masses to vote information to the top of the pile. This is a great additional functionality and one that Friendefeed users have ben enjoying for some time. This tied in with personalised search should help satiate, but let’s face facts – until today Google had the largest amount of information ever held anywhere in it’s own servers so I guess that’s a sign.

The fact that there is such an appetite amongst individuals to ‘get’ information in as many diverse persoanl ways as they can is a commercial culture all on it’s own, but in terms of how this mass consumerism will benefit the planet… well I doubt it will:

My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

This is the crux of the issue. Decisions ultimately being made by people who are influenced by public sway will become more and more manipulated by the individuals who are (poorly) in control of the information. It’s what has spurned the term ‘cyberchondriac‘ and it’s coming to a browser near you.

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  1. […] blogged about it in the summer of last year – Information Overload – when an article as written about how Google was making us stupid. The speed of modern life […]

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