Philosophy  •  July 29, 2010

The Tyranny of Information

Almost everyone is aware of the challenges posed by information management within our increasingly digitized world, but meanwhile something is spreading itself throughout cyberspace, largely uncontrolled and unregulated. Like a cancer it replicates and attaches itself as an unwanted and uncontrollable accretion invading digital space in vast proportions, consuming progressively larger quantities of energy and leaving frustration, stress and misery in its wake. This isn’t some kind of natural or automated process that I’m talking about here but rather the product of a Faustian ignorance, error and neglect. Some have referred to this proliferation of information as “Data Smog” but I’d like to suggest that it’s a good deal more threatening than a fine haze of irritating particles. Smog shifts and changes and often clears on a windy day. On the other hand, a cancer which grows out of control, threatens the very existence of vital organs and processes and therefore needs to be kept in check, if not eradicated altogether, before it threatens life itself.

In 1959, presaging what was later to become the field of nanotechnology, the American physicist Richard Feynman postulated that it would be possible to condense the information from every book ever written onto a single speck of dust. Thirty-two million books in 1959 would probably equate to less than a heaped teaspoon of dust in today’s information laden world.

Our ability to generate and store information has long outstripped our cognitive ability to process such quantities of data. Indeed it has been speculated that Goethe was the last person alive capable of knowing everything that was available to know in his time. In the current era there’s massively more information to hand and each day there’s more data produced than would take a single person an entire lifetime to consume, let alone fully assimilate. The issue we face here is no longer simply one of quality, as it was in Goethe’s time, but of quantity - a quantity whose horizons are receding ever further into the vanishing distance.

“Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.” — Susan Sontag, 1964.

Sontag’s determination was to “recover our senses… to learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” But in a world of escalating plenitude what need is there of yet greater sharpness? Does sharpness not simply alert us more painfully to the overwhelming data profusion and our increasingly puny inability to measure up to it? Perhaps the dulling of which Sontag speaks is our only reasonable defense against this tumorous proliferation in our midst; it’s the price we pay for our lack of systematic data management. We’re like children playing amongst the mounting wreckage of our broken and discarded toys, oblivious, occasionally pulling out scraps and turning them over, trying to identify what use they might offer and absent-mindedly hammering them together in grotesque combinations to idly entertain ourselves. Small wonder that many people are calling for “Information Ecology”. Like nagging parents they entreat us to tidy up our littered bedrooms, calls which we blissfully ignore like all children with better things on their minds. The only solution which would appease these paternalistic fears would be to carry out a massive clearance of the mounting volume of junk which nobody reads and nobody needs, followed by regular removal of all redundant material or some kind of automated perishability of information, where files simply degrade and disappear after a set period. This simply isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future — storage is too cheap and is gaining in efficiency and capacity all the time, and who has the authority or interest in deciding what qualifies as obsolete information anyway? As Slavoj Zizeck has said:

“…the difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality, in this dimension… to recreate - if not beauty - then aesthetic dimension… in things like this, in trash itself. That’s the true love of the world.”

So, we need to accept our trash and to learn to coexist with it — love it even, but also to place greater emphasis on distinguishing between what’s valuable and what’s superfluous. Increasingly I think we’re going to see what I would call Information Curatorship: groups and individuals who filter the glut of information and provide us with the quality and richness which we so desperately need.

And yet there will always be people who haven’t the faintest idea how to prepare information for the consumption of others, who cannot distinguish between brevity and burden and cannot therefore differentiate between information offered as a guide and information as a bludgeon. This is where the real threat of information overload resides. For example, the very thing which provoked me to write this: I’ve just visited the library webpage of one of my art school employers where students can find guidance on citation. The “Guide to using Harvard Style” referencing alone is a mighty 149 page tome. That’s over 17,000 words (or if you’d prefer more detail that’s 116,836 characters) available from a webpage entitled “Library Leaflets” of all things. There’s a further 24 pages on Vancouver referencing. So that’s 173 pages of guidelines in total. All this simply to clarify how to produce citations for essays and dissertations.

Some students can choose which referencing system they use whilst others are forced to use Harvard. These unfortunates therefore have 6 times as much information to digest than anyone able to use Vancouver. To be fair though, there’s a slim 34 page “short” guide to Harvard referencing available… if you know where to look. Incidentally, and not a little ironically, if you search Harvard University’s own website you’ll find no mention of Harvard referencing anywhere (Atherton, 2009).

There are many free online tools which offer a quick and easy means of generating correct citations from books, web pages, emails, videos etc for your bibliography. Some, like harvardgenerator.com, even generate perfectly formatted references just from an ISBN number.

Ahh yes, now I remember, that’s what computers are for — helping us deal with information, not burdening us with it.

References:

Atherton. J (2009). On the shibboleth of Harvard referencing. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.doceo.co.uk/reflection/2009/04/on-shibboleth-of-harvard-referencing.htm. [Accessed 24 July 10].

Gleick, J (1992). Genius, The life and science of Richard Feynman. New York: Vintage Books. p355.

Sontag, S (1983). Against Interpretation. In: A Susan Sontag Reader. London: Penguin Classics. p104.

Zizeck, S. (2009). In Examined Life. [ONLINE VIDEO] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGCfiv1xtoU. Last accessed 22 July 2010.