There is an incredible amount of data one can access today through a computer and high-speed Internet connection: websites, texts, statistics, videos, music, and more. While it all may seem overwhelming, a Harvard history professor reminds us that facing a glut of information is not a problem that has been faced only by people in the Internet age:
information overload was experienced long before the appearance of today’s digital gadgets. Complaints about “too many books” echo across the centuries, from when books were papyrus rolls, parchment manuscripts, or hand printed. The complaint is also common in other cultural traditions, like the Chinese, built on textual accumulation around a canon of classics…
It’s important to remember that information overload is not unique to our time, lest we fall into doomsaying. At the same time, we need to proceed carefully in the transition to electronic media, lest we lose crucial methods of working that rely on and foster thoughtful decision making. Like generations before us, we need all the tools for gathering and assessing information that we can muster—some inherited from the past, others new to the present. Many of our technologies will no doubt rapidly seem obsolete, but, we can hope, not human attention and judgment, which should continue to be the central components of thoughtful information management.
As technology changes, people and cultures have to adapt. We need citizens who are able to sift through all the available information and make wise decisions. This should be a vital part of the educational system – it is no longer enough to know how to access information but rather we need to be able to make choices about which information is worthwhile, how to interpret it, and how to put it into use.
Take, for example, the latest Wikileaks dump. The average Internet user no longer has to rely on news organizations to tell him or her how to interpret the information (though they would still like to fill that role). But simply having access to a bunch of secret material doesn’t necessarily lead to anything worthwhile.