On Keeping Up

Future Shock Happened a Long Time Ago.

Setting the amount of human knowledge as one unit in the year 1, we find two units by about 1500, 4 units by about 1750 and 8 by about 1900. The progress accelerates sharply around here. 16 units by 1950, 32 by 1960, 64 by 1967 and 128 by 1973. These estimates come from a study, completed in 1973, by French economist Georges Anderla for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

There are no similar studies that I can find since but it looks like the number doubled 5 times more by 1990. 4096 units. By 1990 it was doubling every 18 months or so. Even if the rate of change did not accelerate beyond 1990, the current information number is over 134,000,000. (It is unlikely to be so slow as once every 18 months. Some estimates say it doubles every 54 days now)

Even by 1970 the problem was apparent. In “Future Shock” Alvin Toffler proposed the idea “Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” Like culture shock when you move to Indonesia or Bahrain or even Hungary.

Toffler addressed the danger of too much information. People simplify. They will only notice what they understand and agree with and they will ignore the rest as wrong. That leads to sharp polarization, fanaticism, and eventually delusional behavior. Not ideal and also very prevalent today. Toffler was very perceptive.

We know that there is not hundreds of millions times as much knowledge now. More likely people are talking about information. Knowledge is different.

Much of what has been created is more like data than information. It is not necessarily correct, and it is not necessarily relevant. It is not necessarily unique. It may or may not connect to a knowledge structure with which we are familiar.

Today, even if only 1 piece of information in 10,000 is any good, there are still tens of thousands of pieces now for every 64 that existed in 1967. That’s a lot of clutter. So we have to find a way to throw away the other 9999 pieces.

We are developing ways to deal with the clutter. Google is a good example. In 1980 Northern Electric, later Nortel, had an internal policy that stated that if a research project cost less than $50,000 to carry out, it was cheaper to do it than search the literature to see if it had already been done. In 1980. Not likely today. We are progressing but only when we know what we are looking for.

Are there other ways to filter and contextualize the information available? It would seem so.

Decide what information adds value to your life and accept that you can’t know all of it or even a serious share of it. Like how your car engine works. My friend Roger May, a gifted mechanic, once told me that they are almost ready to weld the hood closed. “There is nothing in there you can tinker with. If it isn’t liquid, don’t touch it.” So much for Saturday morning in the driveway.

That advice is common sense now that I see it and common sense is an easy defense to information overload. If there is no value to knowing more, then knowing less or nothing may be the right tactic. You do need to keep track of who does know, however.

If you get a little twinge, then you are probably doing something wrong and you should not. Seek help. Some ways to do it.

  1. Look out beyond knowledge to meaning and then wisdom. How do I connect this “information” to my life in a way that makes my life better? Helps eliminate the clutter if you find no connection. Do you really care what the central bank rate is in Austria?
  2. Enlist others who have similar life plans or interests, to share things they have found that help them. Helps you see contextualized information that you might have missed.
  3. Try to find people with sharply different points of view. For contrast and to widen the net of meaningful information. This will help you to avoid becoming fanatical. Others may see the world differently than you do and, against the odds, they might be right.
  4. Feedback to your group. Like a recipe with notes on the bottom about what worked better or variations you have tried. Shared experience is the cheapest experience.
  5. Periodically clarify what you are trying to accomplish and what you want to know about. Probably the depth to which you want to know it, too.
  6. If you are an adviser try to find ways to communicate at the client’s level of meaning.

Becoming more simple and more narrow in a world that is becoming more diverse and more complex is a losing strategy. Do what you can do to fight the tendency.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

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