This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, September 30, 1992

September 30, 1992 - Information explosion

For some years now, futurists (and the people who believe them) have been predicting a new kind of mass mental illness: information overload.

The rate of increase of new information, they claim, is now so rapid that the human mind quails before it. Why, they say, the entire body of new knowledge doubles every couple of years!

Some writers believe that faced with such an enormity of data the frail human brain has little recourse but to shut itself down. I read one science fiction book, based on Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, that gave detailed instructions on mind-emptying exercises, which people had to do daily lest they forget how to find their way home.

Well, information is my business. And I say the whole notion of "future shock" and "the information explosion" is wildly exaggerated. Once, there were people who maintained that the human body could not travel faster than 40 miles per hour, else it too would explode. They were wrong.

Let's look at the sources of all this burgeoning information, starting with publications of the commercial presses. According to a chart in The Universal Almanac (1991), the number of titles produced in the U.S. increased from 42,377 in 1980, to 47,489 titles in 1988. The chart notes that the "increase is due largely to a major improvement in the recording of paperbound books between 1980 and 1985."

Nowadays, anywhere from 50,000 to 52,000 titles are published annually. As always, a good many of those titles are reprints, even more are updates or replacements of older titles (as in travel guides), and most of the remainder are fiction, children's literature, and the latest diet books.

In over a decade, then, the output of commercial publications has grown -- but not shockingly so. And some might say that most of it is only marginally informative.

But commercial presses aren't the only source of data. In Lesko's Info-Power, author Matthew Lesko states, "one little government publisher, the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), alone sells about 90,000 titles annually. And it's estimated the NTIS titles represent only a tiny portion of research that is actually published by federal agencies."

On the other hand, my Uncle Keith used to be a customs officer, and he once observed that the United States regulations concerning the importation of Mexican avocadoes were some two hundred and twenty times longer than the American Constitution, and he was including all the Amendments.

I'll grant you that the government cranks out a lot of paper, and I'll even grant that some of it is important research. But my point is that unless you happen to be in the Mexican avocado business, who cares?

In my library school days we were taught that the two biggest jumps in publishing have been in the areas of academic journals, and technical reports.

But -- with apologies to my academic colleagues -- I'd have to argue that there isn't that much real information in their writings, either. In the main, academic writing is a series of cross-citations and literature reviews -- bibliographic essays that seldom add a lot to the store of useful, practical knowledge.

As for technical publications, there is indeed some real, relentless piling up of new data going on. But let's be honest: unless you're a specialist, most of that data has no effect on your life whatsoever. Until, that is, it results in a new perfume, food additive, or media for the recording of music. And at that point, you can probably deal with it.

The way I see it, there's a big difference between the quantity of data available, and the specific data that are meaningful. When you want to buy a car, you don't read government engineering reports that analyze automobile trade deficits. You read Consumer Guide.

For most of us, those wads of government reports, academic writing, and technical data just aren't relevant, and irrelevant information doesn't pose a threat to anybody. Information doesn't lurk about in dark alleys, then leap out and force you to memorize its features. It certainly won't team up with other kinds of information to overwhelm your tiny mind.

In my judgment, the size of your essential body of significant knowledge -- the basic information you need to look after yourself in the world and to be a productive citizen -- isn't much different than it was fifty years ago. It's just more important, because without that beginning context, it's much harder to assess the difference between the wheat and the chaff -- the important data on one hand, and the informational equivalent of junk mail on the other.

In short, the total world inventory of information might be a little bigger than it use to be, but there's nothing especially explosive about it.

The important thing is that you can find your way around it -- mostly thanks to today's libraries -- far faster than at any point in human history.

And that's progress.

No comments:

Post a Comment