Friday, August 24, 2012

Dizzying volumes of data is nothing new

Dizzying volumes of data is nothing new


In this era of information abundance, there’s more data available than it’s humanly possible to process in a lifetime. Some of it we simply have to manage, like emails, online networking and virtual friends; the rest we need to go out and find. But has it got to the stage where it’s all simply too much? Has the new wealth of information begun to make us feel stressed rather than empowered? Are we suffering from “information overload”?

There’s no doubt that it can be daunting to process such dizzying volumes of data – but we shouldn’t forget that the generations before us had similar fears with the advent of the telephone, TV and computers. And even before that, our ancestors were complaining about the ever-increasing production of information, and trying to find ways to filter and control its flood. Every generation, it seems, needs to believe it has reached the point of information overload.

An avalanche of print
The earliest reference to the problem is probably the one in the Bible: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Similarly, during the 1st century AD, the Roman rhetorician and writer Seneca the Elder commented that “the abundance of books is distraction”. And in 1255, in a very early example of information “curation”, the Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais attempted to provide an information filter by compiling a 4.5-million word book containing the highlights of all the books he had ever read.

With the invention of the printing press in around 1450, there was suddenly an avalanche of printed material, leading to rapid, massive social change: literacy rates rose, as reading became essential to education and communication as well as a pastime. Whereas previously most people had been living in state of “information shortage”, suddenly there was a flood of printed matter available to everyone who was able to read.

But while this was a blessing to the vast majority of the public, others felt somehow endangered; contemporaries wrote of drowning in a “churning flood” of information. Indeed, the German scientist Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) even feared a return to barbarism, "to which result that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing might contribute very much."[1]

And more was to come.

Threatening the world order?
In 1876, a New York Times article voiced fears that the newly invented telephone would be able to bring “music and ministers” into the home via telegraphic wires, emptying concert halls and churches as people no longer needed to leave their homes. Later, it was television, and then computers which represented a threat to the world order: in 1971, The Futurist magazine explained that computers would soon be able to store information at the rate of 12 million words a minute – which would “collide violently with humanity’s ability to process information”. The article concluded, “Where will it all end?”

Forty years on, we’re now counting our digital information in “yottabytes” – with a whopping 24 zeros after the figure. Within just a few days, we can create more information than has ever been produced since the beginning of time. The internet has once again improved accessibility to information, and has made it interactive: not only do we receive information, we also transmit it, constantly – in social media forums, forwarded emails, blogs and all the rest of the platforms which disseminate information. And all of this information has to be kept constantly fresh, updated and relevant, otherwise it quickly becomes redundant.

But how much of it is really worth reading? How can we be sure it’s accurate? Might we be making poor decisions, based on inadequate or even misleading information? And, in the end, does more information really mean more knowledge?

Access to a wealth of information
Our challenge in the 21st century is to discover, gather and present digital content in a never-ending process of what is now known as “content curation”, differentiating between new, quality information and what is merely clutter. Effective curation creates content, welcomes contribution, and collects links and articles from the web. Once readers find a quality, well-curated collection, they stay loyal to the site.

Supplementing our own original thoughts with those of other like-minded individuals has helped to create a collective intelligence that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. This abundance of information is an enormous advantage to our society – and we mustn’t forget: we have a choice. No one is forcing us to read or otherwise consume everything that is currently available. But it’s there for us, whenever we want it. And in this, we only stand to gain.

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