“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.