There is no doubt about it — we are living in an information Golden Age. In just a matter of minutes, and assuming my computer and Internet connection are working, I can find the top news stories of the day, plus analysis and commentary; I can research almost any question I have; I can read opinions on pretty much any subject; I can watch videos, view art and listen to music, all with a click.
But is it all too much for us to cope with? I’m reading a fascinating book about the history of science: Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris. He describes how the invention of the printing press put books that were once extremely difficult to obtain into nearly every university, library and even some homes. Just as importantly, the accuracy and consistency of those books became much more reliable because they were no longer copied out by hand. As a result, science experienced a boom time, because scientists could finally easily read, study and build on each other’s ideas and data.
The development of the Internet, I think, will carry us into another boom time, if it hasn’t already begun. Not since the invention of the printing press has it been so easy to share information and build on what we already know. I don’t think it’s possible to have too much information. Information inevitably leads to innovation and progress. (That’s why it is so often suppressed.)
However, we have to change our habits when it comes to dealing with this unending flow of information, just as readers and publishers had to in the Renaissance following the invention of the printing press. It is no longer sufficient to be a passive receiver, even if you are not a scientist, but are a mere consumer of information. And content producers can no longer be one-way broadcasters of mass media, pushing content out to the lowest common denominator.
Rather, we must cultivate our sense of discernment, our ability to analyze, our critical thinking skills. We must be more willing to challenge what we read, see and hear on the Internet. We also must actively cull our incoming information flow, constantly editing our content stream so that it best serves our needs. I didn’t learn these skills in school; I don’t think many of my generation did. But they may (and should) be taught to my son.
I have had to learn for myself how to direct the fire hose of information. I have found this challenging and exciting, especially as I have watched the rise of social networks and seen how others engage in commentary and sharing. We are all helping one another to learn. We no longer rely on experts; each one of us can be consumer, publisher, analyst and critic of information.
My son is only three years old, but already I can see that he is unwilling to act as a passive receiver of information. Television cannot hold his attention when the computer beckons. What has been a challenging learning experience for me will probably be second nature to him.
I think it’s a waste of time to wonder if there is too much information available to us today. There is clearly no such thing as “too much information.” Human beings thrive on information, and if our species can be said to have a common purpose, it has been to increase our knowledge, to explore and discover. We will figure out how to better use these tools that we’ve invented. Our ability to adapt is one of our strengths, after all. But best of all, we will progress. With all of this information at our disposal, I don’t think we’ll be able to help it.