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Dealing with the information glut
by Barbara Stone

"...the discovery of information, when not so easily acquired, used to mean something."
David Shenk
"We have transformed information into a form of garbage."

--Neil Postman, Technopoly

ROWING apace with society's burgeoning Internet usage is the increasing volume of information posted online. This volume of information has grown exponentially, resulting in an information overload. This excess of information is a primary example of the Law of Diminishing Returns in action: the more information available to us, the more apathetic we are to it. According to David Shenk's work Data Smog, "the glut of information no longer adds to our quality of life, but instead begins to cultivate stress, confusion, and even ignorance."

After World War II, America's enthusiasm for scientific and technological progress was at its height. As a result, due to the inception of the TV, satellites, and computers, society had increasing access to a growing amount of information. Scientific and technological advancement was sought as an end to itself, and increasingly without a set purpose in mind. Hence, there arose a sense of "technological determinism" in which technological advancements were seen as an inevitably progressive force unto itself. Incidentally, the stage was set for a trend in which more information was produced than could be processed.

Today, this mindset is reflected in our use of the Internet. According to Shenk, "our society has been enabled by computers to capture and reproduce information with minimal cost and effort, which thus precludes the need for planning or thought. We are so information-rich that we take it for granted; the discovery of information, when not so easily acquired, used to mean something." In support of this statement, a recent study conducted by Steve Lawrence and C. Lee Giles, published in Nature, estimate that there are 800 million web pages on the Internet.

It is also important to realize that there is a subtle but significant difference between information and knowledge. Information may be defined as a collection of facts and truisms. Knowledge, on the other hand, requires the appropriate understanding or application of this information.

Therefore, while it is touted that we are living in the Information Age, that our society is in the midst of an Information Revolution, this does not automatically result in increased knowledge. If anything, an information glut may very well cause greater confusion and inability to gain knowledge. Take, for example, a typical keyword search in a search engine. Frequently, thousands of hits are returned, representing information but not - as many useless search results have shown - knowledge.

Another prominent example is the flood of reported statistics, polling results and other quantifiable "informative" studies - ultimately, the sheer number of results far exceed their critical mass. According to a study measuring the unprecedented level of information in our contemporary society, it was estimated that one weekday edition of today's New York Times contains more information than the average person in seventeenth-century England was likely to encounter in an entire lifetime. Our society is now numb to the latest results of opinion polls and the like. In our never-ending quest for more information, there is no end to the inanity that passes as useful information. In response to this much overlooked problem, President Clinton asserted, "In the information age, there can be too much exposure and too much information and too much sort of quasi-information...There's a danger that too much cramming in on people's minds is just as bad for them as too little, in terms of the ability to understand, to comprehend."

Other tangible manifestations of the information glut:

Spam and Anti-Spam Legislation
Negative Social Consequences
How To Manage the Information Glut

Ultimately, it is worthwhile to examine closely the social ramifications of the Internet's information glut. Society's growing desensitization to information bespeaks the decreased utility of or interest in this information inundation. While detractors may consider such suggested analyses to be the precursor to Internet censorship or regulation, this is not the case. Instead, it is important to reconsider the idea of the Internet as a self-driven, unstoppable, technologically deterministic force. Rather, it is a socially constructed entity which consequently ushers in both positive and negative social implications.