Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Age of Superfluous Information

“There is no more dangerous mistake than the mistake of supposing that we cannot have too much of a good thing.” Thus spake George Bernard Shaw. Excess is as damaging as shortage in most things that are considered good. More is better but only up to a point of satiation. Beyond the satiation point, the marginal utility of a good is negative, as an economist may put it. Particular instances of that generalization are not hard to find.

Food, for instance, is a good that in excessive quantities is a bad as the success of the dieting industry so starkly demonstrates. Yet tens of millions poor people around the world dying of malnutrition and starvation every year is the horrible demonstration of the problem at the other extreme.

The same holds for information.

What brings all this to mind is the so-called information revolution occurring globally. Information is a good which is also subject to the law of negative marginal utility beyond the satiation point. Information overload can be as debilitating as too little. For much of the world now the problem is no longer a shortage of information but rather a surfeit.

All living beings acquire information from their surroundings for survival. Information needs vary depending on the nature of the being and the sense-organs have co-evolved to perform the required function. The more complex the entity, the more sophisticated the sense organs are. The sophistication has two dimensions: the bandwidth and the filter.

Higher bandwidth means that more information per unit of time is sensed by the entity. But the information gathered is filtered severely for relevance and only a small percentage is passed on to the processing unit (the brain) for internalization and for response. Therefore the filtering mechanism had to evolve in step with the evolution of high bandwidth sense organs.

Here is my conjecture. Higher intelligence is marked by possessing very high bandwidth sense organs (channel capacity), and a very sophisticated filtering system which rejects most of the inputs and processes only a very small portion of the total information received

We humans sense the world around us mainly through our eyes and ears. Most of the megabits per second of information we receive is rejected and only a minute fraction is processed by our brains. The filtering mechanisms developed over our evolutionary history and did so gradually. Even the brain has an inbuilt capacity to forget. There are a few who suffer from a pathological condition which does not allow them to forget anything that they have ever seen or heard.

Now we are faced with a world where information is being generated and accumulated at an exponentially increasing rate and we face the possibility of information overload that could overwhelm our capacity to filter and meaningfully process it.

Going back to the food analogy, for much of human history, we have been at the edge of starvation. Our bodies evolved a strategy of accumulating fat whenever it could. Now even though for many starvation is not a threat, their bodies continue to use the same strategy of averting starvation and it ends up as obesity. The external change has been too rapid for our bodies to evolve a different strategy. Therefore external agencies such as the dieting industry have evolved to protect us against the body’s internal mechanism.

I conjecture that the age of information dieting industry is upon us. The day is not far off when you would have to go on an information diet.

In the case of food, we do need an adequate amount of calories and that too the nutritional dimensions of the calories we consume matter. Sugars and fats have calories and we do need a sufficient amount of them but a diet of solely of sugars and fats is far from healthy. The information equivalent of sugars and fats is news. We do need news but if that is all we consume, we are likely to become information fat without being information healthy.

Allow me to speak personally, if you will. I have a very low threshold for news and information. In the US, my major source of news was the radio. In India I don’t have that luxury. I don’t have a TV at home. So much of the little news I get is from off the web. Random surfing occasionally is sufficient for me to get to know about the big events. Blogs are a rich source of information. I don’t read newspapers because I believe that anything that really importance which is reported in the papers, I will get to know eventually; and anything that is trivial (which is about 95 percent of the newspapers), I will not miss anyway.

It takes me a long time to process information into knowledge and understanding. I cannot read five books a week. There are books on my bookshelf which I have been reading for the last four or five years and I still have not read them all the way through. Not that you asked but just for the record they are: “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls, “Thinking about Development” by Paul Streeten, “Contemporary Political Philosophy” by Will Kymlicka, just to name a few. I might read a page or two and then it would take me hours to comprehend what I had read. Then a few months later, upon re-reading the same pages, I realize that now I really understand. Only after a three or four passes, do I think that I fully internalized an idea. It is an excruciatingly slow process for me. Perhaps I am not alone in this. I read somewhere that Robert Solow requires three readings before he can comprehend an idea. And he is a Nobel prize winning economist.

Time-out for a joke. Two guys were talking. “So what are you going to do now that you are retiring?” “Well, I was thinking of finishing my book.” “You are? I didn’t know you were writing a book!” “Who said I am writing a book? I am reading one.”

I am almost as bad as that guy when it comes to reading heavy books. The light stuff such as “Freakonomics” I can read in a few hours. But enough of this digression. Back to the topic at hand. What is it going to be like to live in a world where information is cheap and over abundant? What sort of services will emerge which would help people cope? There is a challenge of managing information and therefore there are opportunities for firms that will help you reject information in an age of superfluous information, just as there was a challenge of bringing you information in an age where it was scarce.

Those questions I will ponder about the next time.

Post Script
: The topic is continued here.

Related Post: The world is information fat and a followup.

  • Nitin DB

    This is such an interesting post and something which I have never given much consideration. I’ve always thought you could never have enough knowledge, but having lots of information at hand doesn’t lead to knowledge – it’s gained through the filtering process that you mentioned.
    When you have too much information, your brain has to work extra hard in trying to process it all. Intelligent people are able to handle large amounts of information and are good at filtering out the relevant from the irrelevant.
    In some ways we already have companies, individuals & groups who present information using their own filters. The question is how do we trust that the information that has been rejected, actually ‘should’ have been rejected? This is an area where companies such as Google and Yahoo already have a head-start. Both these companies allow customisation of their web pages (My Yahoo, Google News etc); we have a situation where we are presented only information we are interested in receiving. Moreover, the information usually comes from a vast number of sources so that we can be sure that we are not receiving a ‘one-sided’ view of the world. We might soon see an end to one or two large newspapers, backed by Governments or MNCs, being able dictate and influence public opinion through their own bias filters.
    The Chinese government have been quick to realise this threat, and have swiftly gone to work in controlling what information its citizens can receive through the internet! I hope India never goes down this route? To what extent has the Indian government clamped down on information that is allowed to be received through the internet?

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  • http://prayatna.typepad.com/education Satya

    As T.S. Eliot one said,
    “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?”

  • Randy

    I found your blog while searching the web for references to Govinda, could not place the name when I heard it in a film, so I googled it and one of the sites that came up was your blog. The web has become my dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia, as well as the information portal to world events. I found your blog interesting so I added it to the many sites I visit at least once a week; I feel that the chance to see what other people think and feel about events around us is the best value of the web. As an American I feel most of my fellow countryman have to narrow a perspective on world events, I like to know what other people think and how they perceive events that may differ from how I perceive them. I think all people should use the tools the web provides to inform themselves on events and opinions.
    As to information over load an interesting study released this week from Professor Bob Papper at Ball State shows most Americans are overloading on news, it shows the average American gets about 9 hours of media exposure per day. My question would be about the quality of the media they are exposed to, Fox, CNN MSNBC most of the 24hr new channels fill the day with junk news or made up news. Look to the Hurricane Katrina
    coverage for an example, we all remember the stories of rapes and murders at the Superdome, yet a month later no one eyewitness to any rape or murder has come forward all accounts are of someone hearing of someone who saw them happen. Only two deaths at the Superdome have been termed suspicious, but during the immediate coverage we heard of multiple deaths, bodies laying everywhere and hundreds of terrified people wanting to be let out.
    The access to information that we have is unparalleled in world history but the truth and accuracy of that information is what should be questioned. Who is providing the information, what is reason for the content being provided and is it accurate should be the questions not is there too much. A simple trip through American bloggers will show how the same information and be used to further different agendas, say Josh Marshall and NRO’s take on Tom Delay indictment, same news very different takes.
    I would just say use the medium you desire, TV, newspapers, bloggers or the web but always be prepared to question, in the age of media spin and outright propaganda that would make Goebbels proud, the who, what and why of the information you find.

  • http://projectoutsourced.com Krishnan

    Your analogy needs tweaking. It isn’t a question of excess versus going on a diet by any stretch.

    eg. an average Indian man/woman in India, whether poor/rich/middleclass etc., who doesn’t exercise in a gym, is still going to be clinically fat because Indian diet favors saturated fats & carbs over animal protein. So you’ll have “thin” guys & ladies, but use a fat calipers & they’ll register over 25%. That’s just because they eat white-rice & some ghee & saffola & whatnot, not skinless chicken breast & oatmeal.

    You can find people who eat lots of baked beans or live on tuber like the Russians. They are seldom fat…beans is full of fiber & body can’t process it, so they spend lots of time excreting the same!

    The Aleuts & Inuits in Alaska & Canada primarily consume animal protein & lard…though they are visually fat, they don’t get cardiac arrests like we would if we switched to their diet!

    Many mountain guides typically follow a party-hard work-hard lifestyle…they’ll down 3 pizzas & a sixpack of beer daily, but they’ll still be lean & fit…simply because they may consume 4000 calories but they burn 5000 climbing the mountain…

    Yes, there is profusion of news & info, but what you need may not be a diet. I don’t think its even a healthy idea to go on an info-diet, especially if you are invested in the market. Prices of equities change rapidly & unless you keep up & react, you’ll wind up losing money unnecessarily.

    Newspapers are doing the precise job of managing info. Its not like I call up a newspaper & he’ll print whatever I say. There’s millions of events hapening & newspaper prints a tiny fraction. Of that, we skim & absorb another tiny fraction. So where is the overload ? If I buy a New York Times, I’ll probably read the editorial, 2-3 op-eds, some business headlines, look up stock prices & throw it away. I won’t memorize the high & low temperatures of 50 states & capitals, surely!

    What good is Rawls Theory of Justice going to do if I am news-deprived about an incidence of avian flu in my neighborhood because I chose to go on info-diet? Cutting yourself off to pursue something in-depth exacts its price – being out-of-touch with mundane happenings around you.

    In this tiny southwestern village where I now live, I chose not to bother buying the local newspaper. After all, what can happen here that is so significant ? Well, just the day before there was a major accident & three roads were closed off & I spent a couple of hours taking unnecessary detours, which I could have avoided had I simply glanced at the day’s newspaper in the morning for 25 cents. Ofcourse, this wasn’t reported in internet because it has no global significance, but the local community needs this info, just as much as it needs to know what is on sale his week at Walmart so I can save some money on clothing & electronics.

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  • Tarun Singh

    As a Professor once told me in a class: “Wisdom is in knowing what to ignore”.

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