Drowning in the Sea of Information

Seth Lloyd, over at Discover Magazine, writes a fascinating story, You Know Too Much, about the exponential increase of information in general, and science in particular, that we are subjected to in today’s world. Its fascinating to me not just because he uses one of my posts as an illustration of “The development of the scientific history of the universe, which now threatens religious creation myths” … its fascinating because he makes some excellent points about the glut of information that floods into our consciousness every day and the ways we must deal with it.

There’s a wonderful analogy he uses to describe the change in information landscape over the past 200 years … “We have gone from being hunter-gatherers of information to being filter feeders.” Beyond the fact that “filter feeders” of information is perhaps the most evocative and creative analogy of our modern infotainment culture I’ve ever heard, its also blisteringly accurate. The flow of information is so vast today, the only effective way for us to deal with it is to emulate the giant blue whale, simply taking in everything in our immediate environment, water, plankton, etc, digesting what is useful, and excreting the rest.

Lloyd is full of wonderful analogy in this piece. He uses the analogy of mining to nail the idea that the more we learn about a how a part of the world works, the harder it becomes to learn even more. Where scientists in a certain field initially find gold nuggets laying bare on the ground, Lloyd explains that as more and more people come gold mining, the nuggets become more and more scarce. Eventually, as more discoveries are made and more scientists join the hunt, scientists reach the point where “large-scale blasting and leaching with the mental equivalent of cyanide are required to separate out a few grams of the worthwhile from the tons of dross.” Its always wonderful to see a wordsmith, especially one who is so familiar with his subject material … it strikes me there’s hardly a better way to describe the process by which science becomes more difficult and more minute as more becomes known about a given subject.

The amount of information we are expected to process in the world is only going to increase, and it will increase in an exponential fashion for the foreseeable future … we need to develop strategies to deal with that. We also need to “get” Lloyd’s main point in this piece … more than just a vast increase in information, we need to realize as well that there are areas that are wholly scientific in nature as well as areas that have little to do with science. Lloyd reminds us that the product of our information strip-mining is “not just essential science but also the knowledge that allows us to understand our relation to other living beings.” Knowledge and information can be scientific, but it can also be spiritual, and even religious … we need to make sure that our strip mining operation is nuanced enough not to throw out the valuable nuggets that may not fit specifically into the scientific world view.

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