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Weighing In

Surviving Surfeit: How Do We Cull Important Information Now?

The delete button has become our chief defense against the glut of the age. Doubling the total information store of all human history every few months (or is it even more frequent now?) is quite an achievement, but we've now got ourselves into a pickle about what to do with it all.

How have humans culled important knowledge in the past? Is it really bad that we have "lost" most knowledge during much of our hundreds of thousands of years of existence? And did we really "lose" it or is it preserved in a modified form?

Language Already Archives Everything

The best model for saving critical human knowledge is our language itself. As we struggle to preserve a greater percentage of knowledge than ever before with digital tools, it might be good to pause and see what we can learn from the already existing process for preserving human knowledge.

Using language, we not only name things through words but, also, through linguistic structures. We can describe the characteristics of the things we name and their changes and movements, and this naming and description fits into a rule-bound syntax of languages that many linguists now say human babies are born with. As we learn language as babies, we are inheriting the greatest knowledge store of humanity, independent of a library, or a digital archive.

Beyond this basic store of words and syntax and meaning, we created figurative language forms such as song, poetry, stories, and jokes that helped us remember key lessons about all that we had named and described. In these folklore forms, we condensed collective wisdom or assuaged collective fears. We remembered some stories more than others because they fit with a larger consciousness or with our sense of what it means to be human.

This process is the core genius of humanity. The way that language works to store and pass on human knowledge does not need to be "corrected" by trying to save everything. After all, by culling the most important knowledge over hundreds of thousands of years in languages and language forms, we got ourselves to this digital age. We already are expert at sustaining a mature system of knowledge sorting.

Instead of trying to save everything, we need to take a cue from the wisdom of the ages. Electronic communication and electronic work is just as ephemeral as spoken language. After all, electronic communication is a hybrid of writing and speech. Let's let it be ephemeral. Now that we have the theoretical ability to save everything, there's no compelling reason to do so as a general rule.

In fact, there is a compelling reason to continue to cull human knowledge as we always have. A mountain of information is not by itself a source of inspiration and discovery; it could just as easily stifle any inspiration.

Hopeful signs of a resurgence of millennial wisdom are appearing: "Story telling" is making a comeback as legitimate academic work. We can also now say "conversation" around academics instead of "discussion." The study of folklore is a respected discipline. Just as the discovery of synthetic materials for clothing half a century ago made wool, leather, and cotton more highly prized, the discovery of digital archives may lead to new respect for and use of natural human forms of preservation.

We are not in desperate need of giant archives because we already have an archiving mechanism which is efficient and which has been somehow mapped onto our genes. Language and all the language forms that archive knowledge are still with us. As is always the case with information technology, by trying to replicate what we already do -- preserve important knowledge -- we find that humans do things much better and in more complex ways than we knew.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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