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the promiscuity of information
( the meaning? )
by stephen wacker
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It's the Information Age. We exult in the availability of information. We wallow in it, like the proverbial pig in a puddle. We've gone from faucet to floodgate, from drizzle to downpour, from trickles to torrents of information. This is good, right? Information is the oil of the new economy, lubricating the engines of commerce and turning us from know-nothing Neanderthals into bit barons and number-crunching data wranglers.

Over the last decade, the global reach of the Internet has created an information clearinghouse of staggering proportions. But consider:

 >> as e-mail comes to be used by most everyone (didn't take very long to happen, did it?), fewer seem to be able to keep up with the flow. The signal-to-noise ratio has become increasingly unbalanced, and if the Subject line doesn't grab us we just [Delete] instead of double-click.

 >> electronic scanners search millions of resumés submitted to thousands of Web sites, but if they don't contain certain keywords they're invisible. And more organizations than ever say they can't find quality employees.

 >> search engines keep falling further behind in their Sisyphean efforts to index the Web, and it's a formidable challenge to glean meaningful information while online.

 >> the use of e-mail faces increasing restrictions, as those who create destructive viruses exploit the weaknesses of systems created with something less than security in mind.

At this point in history, our ability to generate information has outpaced our ability to comprehend it. We're driven to make sense of it all, to shape and sort and classify information into systems we can use. From the days of writing on cave walls to the creation of XML, we've tried to do a better job of comprehending the information at hand. The thing is, we've become so good at creating information that it's piling up faster than promises in a political campaign.

Information has become indiscriminate, miscellaneous with a capital M, composed of all sorts of things--it has become cheap, and it knows no restrictions. It has become promiscuous. If education has been cheapened through the distribution of diplomas, perhaps information has been cheapened by the explosion of the Web and the distribution of Web browsers.

Are there limits to the amount of information we can comprehend? Perhaps in a restricted period of time, yes, but I don't think our brains spill like overfilled glasses of milk. Instead, they seem to exhibit the on-or-off, yes-or-no characteristics of binary data systems (hmmm--better be careful here), although we also absorb information without being aware of it, as anyone who has ever worked a crossword puzzle can testify.

But as we dig deeper, the tapestry of digital information seems to be somewhat limited, perhaps because the fibres from which it's woven are but one-dimensional threads. Perhaps it's because we see information in binary terms, and we haven't yet comprehended its other dimensions. Perhaps it's because we're focused on "the only real numbers--the ones and the zeroes," as songwriter Danny O'Keefe so deftly put it.

We've barely started deriving knowledge from information, and gaining wisdom from knowledge is a challenge of significantly greater magnitude. T.S. Eliot, one of the more notable Western poets of the 20th century, wrote the following more than 65 years ago:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

>> from The Rock

Was Eliot envisioning the future, or just reacting to the information overload of his time? I don't know for sure, but I'm fairly certain that wisdom can't be taught--it comes from an internal place.

Wisdom's voice can be drowned out as easily as any other, and it won't shout to make itself heard. As the cacophony of knowledge and information washes over us like a great tsunami, we should listen more carefully than ever.

Copyright © 2000 Stephen Wacker. All Rights Reserved

Contact Stephen Wacker at swacker@accessone.com regarding use of this copyrighted material.

Stephen Wacker writes about technology, culture, society and music from the upper left-hand corner of the United States. He's a writer, a communications technology analyst, a songwriter and guitarist, although not always in that order.

 

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