Thoughts & Things

Living with Information Overload

September 21, 2020

The information overload is a popular usage to denote this age when we feel that we are overwhelmed with information beyond our capacity to absorb and process.  Anything which is in abundant supply is a challenge to handle and information is not different either.  Our ability to manage our present and shape our future depends largely on our ability to handle the information which is pouring from all corners. Here we take a peek at this peculiar phenomenon where we are intimidated by the sheer volume of information we have to deal with daily.  

The knowledge gathering species

Though we are all familiar with terms such as data, information, knowledge and wisdom, it will be useful to recall basic working definitions of these concepts.  At the base of everything, we have data which are discrete, objective facts about an event. Knowledge refers to the awareness or understanding of a subject acquired from education or experience of a person. Information is nothing but the refined form of data, which is helpful to understand the meaning of anything. On top of all, wisdom is the ability to use our knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments: In an ideal situation,  we should be able to gather the required data and information from all possible sources and convert them into useful knowledge and wisdom which in turn help us to lead meaningful lives. However, this does not happen that way always. Sometimes we mistake data and information for knowledge and mistake knowledge for wisdom. Further , we also observe that despite the availability of a huge amount of information and knowledge around, many of us fail to use it to improve the quality of our lives. We also face the peculiar situation where we have too much data and information around but less time and skill to convert them into useful knowledge.

            To reflect briefly on our evolution as thinking animals, the success of human-animal is chiefly attributed to its ability to produce and use new knowledge continuously and hand over it to the subsequent generations. It was this unique skill which helped man to conquer the rest of the animal kingdom. Accordingly, the winning formula was always, the more information, the better.  Man believed that any additional knowledge will improve his life. It was this appetite for knowledge which worked in our favour and freed us from the bondage of mysteries and illusions.  Today man is in a position to understand his place and destiny in this world and is acutely aware of his limitations and challenges. What the information age is doing to us is taking this appetite for information to its next level and placing us amidst what we call an information explosion. Now the challenge is what shall we do with all these?  How do we approach this explosive flow of information? How does it help us to live better lives?  How do we find a balance?   

The information explosion

            Before the advent of the Internet, we had several limitations in gathering and managing information. We were limited by our resources and distance.  For the same reason, it was a slow process and we also rarely had the feeling of being overwhelmed by information at any time.  But today the scenario is different. The Internet has changed the entire dynamics of information gathering and sharing and we are no longer constrained by time or distance. Information is abundant and can be disseminated at much less cost universally. But this has its flipside too.   Most of the information pouring from all sides is unfiltered, unedited and accordingly, there is a tremendous responsibility on the receiver to filter and sort it out before final use.  Everybody is a sender and receiver at the same time.  As we were evolved with a feeling that always more is better we keep consuming this information endlessly without ever wondering what we are doing with all these or whether it is adding any value to our understanding.  Though many may feel that they are learning with hours of browsing in their smartphones or computers, what actually may be happening is just remaining hooked to endless distractions without adding anything of value. When entire time is lost in such a casual way of consuming all sorts of information there is hardly any time for processing that information or to think about it. The information on the Internet is arranged in such a way that we have evidence for anything we want. As I read in an interesting blog post recently, if we choose any non-trivial topic X, a cursory Google search will give us evidence for both X and NOT (X). Often, we go with our presuppositions and gather evidence for it.  This is the tragedy of our times which often defeat the very advantage of having abundant information at our disposal.   

Choices before us

The good news is that there is a way forward. Information per se is not the issue but how do we manage it is the challenge. If accumulation and storing information was the focus in the past , today it is shifted to processing and using them intelligently thanks to the Internet which can handle the storage challenges better than us.  Our capacity for storing information can be spared for using it for other purposes.  Nowhere this is more relevant than our schools. Once we free our children from the extreme burden of storing so much information in their memories, it can be freed for developing thinking skills.   First and foremost, we must understand that in an age of information overload, the most important thing is not knowing a lot of stuff but sorting out what is useful.   This means that the essential skills today are “how do we fact check, how to separate fact from fiction, how to think critically and how to form opinions”.  We need to choose our sources wisely and develop a skeptical mindset towards what comes before us. In fact, these are the things we should now be teaching our children.   As more and more knowledge accumulates around us and human attention becomes the new scarce capital, we need to know very clearly the kind of knowledge we want and we have to ruthlessly remove the unimportant and useless and chase aggressively what is beneficial.

            Finally, all the knowledge which we receive freely and abundantly comes to naught when it does not make us more empathetic, rational and understanding individuals with a sense of our place in the universe and the knowledge of what is at stake.  We are not here to endlessly consume all information that comes to us and end up what some people call info-obese.   All that is needed a harmonious balancing of data, information, knowledge and wisdom. While we navigate through this information overload, no better lines to close this post than this gem from T.S. Eliot who could foresee what was coming many decades back. “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?”

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  • Reply
    Fr. Jijo Kandamkulathy
    September 28, 2020 at 7:53 pm

    Dear Bobby,
    Very refined and nuanced writing……
    I will definitely use this in my classes…


    • Reply
      Boby George
      October 15, 2020 at 12:12 pm

      Thank you so much for your comments Father.

  • Reply
    September 28, 2020 at 8:27 pm

    There seems to be almost as much disinformation as true information going round. It is very hard to sift through all that is coming to us. Sometimes it is better to close the newspapers and turn off the news, so we can come back to ourselves.
    Indeed, the overload sometimes seems to lead to panic rather than to common sense. In panic, we make mistake upon mistake and make no progress whatsoever.
    The information highway sometimes needs to make place for a walk in the woods !

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