The fire hydrant of new information

August 23, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

About 20 years ago, I became frustrated that, because of long hours spent at the office, I was not able to read as much as I would like. After all, there were thousands of good books out there that I had never read.  To add insult to injury, my memory recall was poor regarding many of the classic books I had previously read.  For instance, I had read The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye, but could I intelligently describe the plots and characters of these books?  Not without rereading them.

It occurred to me that I was reading books at the rate of only about one book every three months.  If I lived 50 more years, reading four books per year, I would be dead after reading only 200 more books.  That seemed to be an exceedingly gloomy prospect given that the culture I inhabit is continually bursting with new and interesting information. 

No, I wasn’t under the delusion that I would ever be able to know everythingI realized that it would be impossible for any one person (probably for any group of 1000 people) to to have detailed knowledge rivaling that contained in any large library.  Rather, I was seeking a basic working knowledge of many of the basic fields of study taught in most universities. I didn’t want to embarass myself in a group that started discussing well-known literature and basic principles from scientific fields such as biology, physics and anthropology. I felt that I needed to fill my head with more information in order to be a decent writer, much less a responsible voter.

I sought out a philosophy professor from my undergrad days.  He listened closely as I explained my frustration.  He then told me it did not matter what we read, as long as we choose quality reading material.  He explained that all good writers touch the same common deep issues.  He encouraged me to quit worrying about quantity and to focus on quality.  His advice was to make sure that every bit of reading I picked up “touched bottom.”

My professor’s advice was reassuring at the time, but I am not certain that it was accurate.  It is true that many of the same deep issues are addressed by many disparate fields of study.  It is my belief, however, that the various fields of study fail to overlap more often than they do overlap. 

For the past 10 years, I have spent much time auditing graduate-level courses at Washington University in St. Louis (I am very grateful that they offer this opportunity to members of the community). Many of those courses were in the area of cognitive science.  Jumping into this new field, however, was like trying to take a drink out of a fire hydrant.  It was not reassuring to be exposed, week after week, to ever more material that was almost entirely new to me.  There was so incredibly much to learn–this remains the case for me today.

Simply stressing quality over quantity, then, does not a total solution to having a working knowledge of the many basic fields of study. Rather, it’s necessary to consciously visit quality works from a wide variety of fields.  No matter how much you read traditional philosophy, for example, you will never encounter anything equivalent to the wonderful insights of modern era cognitive science writers such as Paul Churchland, Mark Johnson or Andy Clark. 

Then again, my philosophy professor’s suggestion was still helpful. Whatever you read, choose carefully, because there really is an avalanche of information out there. In sum, my professor was overconfident that any individual could keep up with the constant outpouring of new information from all fields.  On the other hand, whatever chance anyone has a being “well read,” that chance disappears once one stops being a selective chooser of reading material. 

I recently picked up a book that provided some good statistics regarding the amount of new information introduced into the world every day.  The book is called Content Critical: Gaining Competitive Advantage through High-Quality Web Content, by Gerry McGovern and Rob Norton (2002). The back cover the book explains the purpose of the book: to explain “the theory and practice of producing a reader-focused, compelling content” on websites.

In a chapter called “It’s an Information Overloaded World,” I learned the following regarding the extent of new information produced each year (I assume that things have probably changed for the worse since 2002):

  • Every issue of the New York Times contains more information than someone in the 17th century would have read in a lifetime.
  • There is enough scientific information written every year to keep a person busy reading day and night for 460 years.
  • In the past 30 years we have produced more information than in the previous 5000.
  • The amount of recorded scientific knowledge is doubling approximately every 15 to 20 years.
  • More than 1000 books are published around the world every day.
  • The world produces between one and 2 exabytes of unique content per year, which is roughly 250 MB for every man, woman and child on earth
  • If you read two books every week for a year, you would be reading only 3/10,000 of the books that are published that year.
  • In the United States, 5000 different magazines are published.
  • About 4000 academic papers are published every day in the United States alone.
  • Printed content represents only .003% of all content published annually around the world.  The vast majority of content can be found on computer disks.

“For every sentence published in print there are 30,000 sentences published on computers, much of this being published without publishing standards (quality control).   This brings to mind Neil Postman’s quote, “We have transformed information into a form of garbage.”

Some people are not bothered by these statistics.  Such people simply do the best they can, given their capabilities. They don’t feel any need to know everything about everything.  I am not one of those people.  I fear that there are vast expanses of information out there, and wonderful stories to be told, of which I will forever be oblivious. This bothers me.  Not greatly, but it does. Is there a real solution for people like me, people who have unrealistic expectations?  Nope.  And are there other things, often much more important things to do in the world, besides knowing things? Absolutely.

Perhaps this blog (and the many other blogs I visit) give me some comfort, perhaps illusory, that through the power of networking I will be a tiny bit less likely to lose touch with a meaningful, yet tiny, portion of this convoluted, complex and ever-changing world I inhabit.  


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Category: Culture, Education, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, Writing

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I usually just roll my eyes at cliches and don't identify with them at all, but I really empathize with the notion that, "the more you know, the more you realize that you know nothing." It seems like every discipline in the world has a vast level of complexity to it that a neophyte just wouldn't expect. But I suppose I would prefer to find myself continually learning, even if always knowing ultimately "nothing", than to run out of information to absorb. Not that I have any choice in the matter; cognitive dissonance may have just forced me to say that to make our ultimate ignorance tolerable.

    So, does the internet really just turn information into garbage? I think the internet does the same thing speech does, except that it leaves a record. People distort, abuse, and misinterpret information in conversation millions of times a day. People purport to know things that they really don't know during conversation millions of times a day. People invent unintellectual garbage just as often. The internet merely catalogues this in a previously unseen way. At the same time, the internet makes legitimate information readily accessible, and it makes it easier for disciplines to overlap, the way they often do on this very blog.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    The following tip might not help with *reading* all the information that's generated every day, but it might help with *finding* the best quality information on a given subject: your local public library. Most public libraries in America now offer a wide range of on-line services that are accessible from any computer with an Internet connection. Gone are the days of manually searching through card catalog drawers full of index cards; here are just a few of the things my local library provides:

    – On-line card catalog that can be searched via the Internet. Not only are the standard Boolean operators available (AND, OR, NOT, etc.), but advanced search features can narrow the search in various ways; for example, a particular media format (audio books, computer software, sound recordings on CD, etc.) can be specified. Some books are even available in electronic form and can be downloaded for free directly to my home computer. Real-time status information will tell me if an item is already checked out and, if so, I can put the item on hold and the library will notify me by email when the item becomes available.

    – Delivery service. Again, using the library website, I can have any item in the entire library *system* (an area that covers several counties) sent to my local library branch, which will hold it for a week for me to pick-up. This includes items I have put on hold, which will be automatically sent to my local branch when they become available. And, since it's all done via the Internet, I can access this feature even if I'm traveling: I can search for an item, put it on hold, have it sent to my local branch, and have it waiting for me to pick up when I return from my trip.

    – On-line periodicals. Many magazines and newspaper articles can be searched and downloaded in full text format, again for free. This includes many big-city newspapers and high-end magazines that my library does not even subscribe to in paper format.

    – Account management. Anything I have checked out from the library can be renewed via the Internet, so I don't need to go to the library to renew an item. Likewise, items on hold can be easily added or deleted, or even sent to a different branch for pickup.

    These are just a few examples of the many services available at most public libraries these days. If you haven't been to the library recently, you might be surprised at what it can provide.

  3. Ben says:

    Here is a good place to start…

    I used to just use google as my start page, but this has google, wiki, columbia, and more.

    And for "expert" opinions, you can't beat the actual experts' free advice!

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