Can We Survive the Information Revolution?

Do we have enough information? Will we ever get enough? Consider these mindcrunching morsels of information about information, numbers so gargantuan they sound unreal:In 1970, the average American adult was exposed to more than 560 advertising messages per day (or: 200,000 per year). In 1991, the same average American was clobbered with 3,000 messages per day -- more than 10 million messages per year. At last count, the USA had almost 12,000 newspapers (many of these piled up in my mother's basement); 12,000 magazines; 30,000 video rental stores containing more than 20,000 different films; 500 million radios; 150 million television sets; 100 million computers.In 1990, America's 30,000 telemarketing companies employed 18 million Americans. The result? More than 400 billion dollars in annual sales.Every day Americans take more than 40 million photographs. Each year in the USA 50,000 new books are published (300,000 new books are published worldwide.) The Internet contains 14,000 newsgroups; and 30-50 million web pages. No one knows how fast the World Wide Web is growing.American mailboxes, every year, are graced with more than 60 billion pieces of junk mail. If the envelopes of all our year's worth of junk mail were laid end to end, the chain would circle the girth the earth more than 400 times.The Information Revolution is upon us. Americans are drowning in a deluge of data, a morass of messages, a tsunami of digitized images, noises, and words. What does this revolution mean for us? Economically we glide toward the global economy that conducts its businesses long-distance, and spends increasingly more of its resources accumulating, processing, and marketing information. In daily life, computers and computer-embedded technologies acquire more significant roles in all aspects of our work and leisure. In the realm of education, with notable exceptions, instead of teaching children how to think for themselves, evaluate ideas, and cherish creativity -- we overload our students with facts, facts, facts.All the quantity of information we have now is virtually nothing compared to what's coming on the road ahead. Currently, we double all our information in only 2.5 years. By the year 2010, the world's information base -- all the information in the world -- will double every 70 days.Some of the problems with this obsessive infomania were foreseen by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In his cautionary tale 'The Library of Babel' (published in 1944), Borges describes a library that contained all the knowledge in the world. And not merely all the knowledge was held there, but all the conceivable information, including "the interpolation of every book in all books", and a detailed history of the future. "When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books," Borges writes, "the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be masters of an intact and secret treasure." But soon, this "inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression." Some of Borges' characters grew frustrated, others went mad. The library contained everything, but because it was so imponderably vast, no one could ever find the book they needed.Borges' tale anticipates the Web, and poses the primary survival task of the information age: How can we find the needles of information we're looking for, in the mountainous haystacks that hide them?Information can be harvested from three major sources: from printed materials, from live experts, and from electronic data. Print sources include textbooks, reference books, nonfiction books, directories, newspaper articles, and magazine and journal articles. Electronic sources, the fastest growing field, allow you to gather data from professional and consumer online services, online discussion groups, CD-roms, and the World Wide Web. At this moment in history -- it won't last long -- there is still vastly more information located in non-electronic forms than in the electronic world. But print information is a neatly-organized garden; the Web is a jungle where anything goes. Finding something on the World Wide Web can be as frustrating as trying to eat soup with a fork.The arts of finding information, printed and electronic, are explained in two newly-published books. Robert Berkman's "Find It Fast" lucidly teaches how to do research on any topic at the library, and offers an excellent 40-page chapter about how to search the Internet. "The Information Broker's Handbook" (by Rugge and Glossbrenner), is a comprehensive manual that expertly explains how to find information, and how to sell it as an information broker.For taking a safari through the World Wide Web, the best guide is "Harley Hahn's Internet & Web Yellow Pages". Hahn's book is an alphabetized directory of, in my guesstimate, more than 100,000 of his favorite websites, Usenet newsgroups, and mailing lists. You'll be tickled, angered, and amazed at what you can and can't find on the Web.Regarding the social and psychological effects of data overconsumption, many sharp critics of our over-technologized society are asking questions that cry out to be asked. Are these ever-expanding galaxies of information, and the entire Information Revolution in general, making everyday life more difficult? Is the accelerated pace necessitated by this lifestyle too hectic for us? Do we rush through our lives without understanding, appreciating and enjoying life fully? Skillfully hunting for information is an essential but small part of surviving in an information-glutted world. What else can we do?Some suggestions can be found in David Shenk's just-published book, "Data Smog" -- a powerful critique of the information culture and its profitmaking proponents. Shenk advises that we should turn off our televisions; limit our e- mail; begin "data fasts" (similar to food fasts); and try "downteching": using older and simpler machines.Reflecting about uncluttering our lives always takes us back to the sage of Concord, Henry David Thoreau. During Thoreau's lifetime radical changes were transforming his native New England. The American population exploded, new technologies proliferated like mushrooms, and the industrial revolution was just gathering steam. For Henry David, reading one newspaper per week was more than enough. News was trivia that clogged the mind, for the human mind was sacred ground, which needed to be kept clear for it's true work -- thinking original thoughts. In his posthumously published essay 'Life Without Principle', Thoreau asks us: "Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself, -- an hypaethral temple, consecrated to the service of the gods?"Thoreau's solution to information overload in the 19th-century was to simplify all aspects of his life, to live with less, to learn from nature, to read only the best books, to walk in the woods every morning, to renew himself every day. Clearly, 150 years and countless technologies later, it's much more difficult to slow down and simplify. Thoreau, who was born on freedom's birthday, the fourth of July, would parry this excuse by urging us, since the task is so immense, to: "Begin to live more simply now."Michael Pastor's latest book, "You're Ugly and Your Mother Dresses You Funny", will be published in March 1998 by Zorba Press.New Books Mentioned in this Essay:Find It Fast: How To Uncover Expert Information on Any Subject (Fourth Edition). By Robert I. Berkman. Published by HarperPerennial, 1997. Pp. 323. Paperback, $ 14.00. ISBN: 0-06-273473-3.The Information Broker's Handbook. By Sue Rugge and Alfred Glossbrenner. Published by McGraw-Hill, 1997. Pp. 579. Paperback, $ 34.95. ISBN: 0-07-057871-0.Harley Hahn's Internet & Web Yellow Pages, 1997 edition. By Harley Hahn. Published by Osbourne/McGraw-Hill, 1997. Pp. 960. Paperback, $ 29.99. Includes CD-ROM for Windows and Macintosh. ISBN: 0-07-882258-0.Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. By David Shenk. Published by HarperEdge, 1997. Pp. 250. Hardcover, $ 24.00. ISBN: 0-06-018701-8.

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