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Living in an Age of Information Overload



Dan McGuire

As recently as a few centuries ago, it was possible for a guy with a lot of time on his hands and a decent amount of money to accumulate in his house the entire sum of western knowledge.

You figure that the largest private libraries would stock a Bible, a concordance, a couple of commentaries on the Bible, some classic texts like the Canterbury Tales, and a few Greek and Arabic texts on science, mathematics, and philosophy.

This sort of distribution makes sense given the market conditions prevalent in the late middle ages and early Renaissance. A good portion of the population was illiterate and spent the day whacking at the ground with sticks trying to make corn grow. The remainder couldn't support a whole heck of a lot of scribes, so there wasn't a great deal of innovation.

Then a whole series of things hit: the Renaissance, Gutenberg and his press, the Industrial Age, mass production, and literacy. A whole series of momentous changes in society and technology made all sorts of information available everywhere, culminating in the present day where a person looking for toothpaste at CVS can pick up a copy of Cat Fancy on the way out the door.

It's hard to imagine medieval scribes spending weeks illuminating a five-page spread named "How to Keep Your Cat's Fur Its Fluffiest". It simply wouldn't be worth their time.

Obviously, the character of the information industry has changed. For one, it's that there's simply more of it, but there is also a growing specificity: it's possible to build a publication that caters only to a specific group of people, such as middle-aged fanciers of cats. The novelty of the publication is less the information that it contains and more that it appeals to the set of prejudices, predilections, and world views that one already holds.

It's possible, given the economics of modern publishing, to print a magazine devoted entirely to fly fishing or smoking cigars. Paper is cheap, stringers are cheap, and the management and publishing structure already exists. The day when each and every person can have a magazine that caters to his or her own personal neuroses has arrived, with magazines like the Mellon Report and National Spectator being People's Exhibit A.

Television shows, and even entire channels, dedicated to one particular thing are becoming de rigeur on modern, 500 channel cable systems. People can get not one, but two channels covering debates in Congress. There are now, by my count, ten channels dedicated to showing current movies. Old movies get more air time on two or three channels dedicated to the subject.

But what is really changing the face of information distribution is the Internet. Nothing gets more specific than one's personal musings on the current state of the world.

A person that would have to call tech support to learn how to pick his nose is now able to immortalize his thoughts on the Internet. Call it the dump truck with the unlocked tail gate on the Information Superhighway.

A few quick AltaVista searches reveal the extent of the problem. Almost 16,000 people feel compelled to tell the world about their favorite books, according to AltaVista. Over 130,000 people want everyone to know what they are interested in. And almost 19,000 pages want to tell you about their favorite links.

This isn't to say that there aren't good things out there on the Internet. Some sites are thought-provoking, some are funny, and some are interesting.

But it's safe to say that the vast majority are not. Most people on the Internet just don't care about 16,000 pages worth of books, 19,000 pages worth of links, and 130,000 pages worth of people's interests. We have reached an age of information overload; we have more information than we can process, and most of it is utterly useless.

So let's regulate it. I have a modest proposal. The French have had great success with the Academie Franaise, the body designed to regulate the growth of the French language and prevent it from being anglicanized.

I propose a similar body to monitor U.S. publications, television, and web pages and prevent excessive specificity. All bits of information judged too specific would be stamped with a big red stamp that says "This document has been judged to be too specific. Federal law would require that everyone who reads this must, as a mind broadening exercise, read an article at random from the Encyclopedia Britannica."

That'd take care of those cat fanciers.