Info Glut: Academia's Foundational Threat

The great problem our culture faces right now, in all ways, is glut. Not only are we physically overwhelming natural processes throughout the world, but we are doing the same in the virtual world of the Web. Great ideas are being lost in the firehouse spray, along with the entire orderly process of knowledge creation. Those trying to save all information should instead be devising plans for orderly and regular disposal of information. We need a new science of information conservation whose experts would devise methods and systems to rid ourselves of 95 percent of the daily information smog in which we are enveloped.

Humans know nothing of abundance. In 99 percent of our history, we had too little. As late as the 1940s, most humans did not have enough (most still do not, of course). We did not have enough of anything--of clothing, food, shelter, or tools. But, we had learned well, through those long millennia of scratched-out living, and we dealt with scarcity successfully. But, as a result, many of our cultural norms are framed by an assumption of eternal scarcity. We survived by knowing how to get through periods of famine, drought, or catastrophic crop failures.

Therefore, as a species, we humans have no preparation or cultural wisdom to deal with glut. We have become so technically smart that we produce more than we need of almost everything. In fact, we may have just produced more wealth than was good for the entire world financial structure since it appears to be collapsing under its own weight of leveraged assets. There is so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now that the oceans are becoming too acidic to support life. We are making too much of everything, basements and attics and garages and storage units are bursting at the seams, and we stay awake at night wondering how to get rid of stuff.

In the EDUCAUSE CIO listserv in January, one CIO said that, yes, he received 1,000 e-mails a day. And, in the land of Web 2.0, it is hard to be chic because each day there is a new hot site that you somehow missed but that is already the place to be. How can anyone in academia deal with the info glut we live with now? How can institutions based on an assumed scarcity of knowledge and organized around this assumption over a thousand years, adapt to this sudden glut of knowledge?

What are we losing in academia because of how easy it is to generate knowledge? I see a commercial on TV for an investment firm which shows a quick-talking investment counselor showing how fast he can analyze and track financial indicators and rapidly adjust his investment strategy and all that comes to my mind is, "This is what caused the problem to begin with." What is that wealth based on? Where is the reality? Those are numbers and symbols on the screen with advanced graphics, great resolution, but no names, no places, nothing linking those numbers and symbols to any reality. This is not knowledge, but just a faster chess player.

Knowledge creation moving as fast as it does today can be just as removed from reality as this investor caught up in a swirl of numbers with no connection to anything. It is much easier now to be confident about a claim because you have seen so many others saying the same thing on the Web. If no one is contradicting them 24 hours after they made the claim, then you must be safe to make the same claim.

Knowledge is all about consensus. Each field of study builds consensus through research, publishing, and communication. If this orderly and considered process of building consensus is getting short circuited by an overriding virtual consensus that is reached not by "the wisdom of the crowd but by the madness of the mob" (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/social_web_unforeseen_consequences.php), then we are in trouble. The caricature of academia is of always having two hands, "On this hand, we know X, but on the other hand, we know Y," but the caricature may be changing to having a thousand hands.

Of all the colleagues across the country I keep in touch with, none ever say they are caught up, none ever say they are done with anything. Our scarcity habits have perhaps got us on a treadmill, thinking, as was appropriate 20 years ago, that we could not miss any new significant development, publishing event, or conference. In a period of glut, you miss stuff. You can either be a slightly informed factotum or an incompletely informed wise person.

We need a re-examination of values. What do we now mean by an "exhaustive search of the literature"? How can one actually exhaust the resources? With really good search terms, I could exhaust X percent of the relevant resources on a Friday and find that by Monday my X percent was X minus 30 percent and that some of my X percent had already been disproved in any case.

How much of the current recession can be traced to runaway digital systems? Shouldn't the financial collapse be a red flag for all who deal in information for whatever reason? Shouldn't we in academia have courses and seminars and committees and strategic questions about how to deal with info glut?


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