Infinite Information

Perhaps I’m the only one who hadn’t realized before, but there are over six billion people in the world. Those people are, at a given time, in 6 billion different places, doing 6 billion different things, and thinking six billion different thoughts. That means that each second, 18 billion potential–but very inexact–data points are being generated. The number quickly gets into the trillions if we seek data related to say, their health. Each of those people at each of those instants had different red blood cell counts, blood glucose levels, blood alcohol levels… I won’t even try to name all the possibilities.

The simple reality is that in a given instant the world’s population if full of more information than a person could know in a lifetime. If we were to include information about other animals, the planet itself, or the universe, it becomes impossible to fathom the quantity of data that we could amass and know.

Even if we limit ourselves to information that is being recorded–written and stored, by people or computers–there’s more than a single person could reasonably expect to know. Even if we further limit ourselves to information that is available to us, there’s more than a single person could reasonably hope to know. Surely the internet’s done a lot of good things, but by making so much information available so easily it’s no longer possible for someone to have “read everything” within more than 100 feet of themselves. (Yes, I’m making the indefensible assumption that you’re never more than 100 feet from an internet connection.)

It’s because of thoughts like this that people often complain about “information overload.” With more people and more computers than ever before, there’s more stored information than ever before.

The problem with information overload is that it fails to distinguish between what a person “can know” what they “want to know.” Those 18 billion or more data points available at any second offer precious little information that I actively “want to know.” Surely I’d think it was cool to know what a random person in India, Zimbabwe, France, or Paraguay was doing right now, but that’s different than those 18 billion semi-knowable data points.

Of course internet–or is it information?–skeptics maintain that people shouldn’t be able to know only those things they “want to know.” They lament that allowing that will create a world of small groupings of self-selected people who know roughly the same information and hold roughly the same biases about it.

It’s absolutely possible that a small circle between 10 and 50 people could create enough information and media that you could spend all of your free time consuming nothing but the ideas and products of that small circle of people. This is what gives way to fears of the mythical “echo chamber” that the internet is supposed to create.

Of course, such echo chambers existed before. Then, they were generally called “small towns” and the only means of escape were geographic. Today they can exist virtually, but the price of escape is much lower. A new website is a few clicks away, not a few hundred miles.

There has alway been an infinite amount of information. Now much more of it is recorded, and thus far easier to know. The fact that there is more information recorded and accessible than ever before doesn’t mean that we’re automatically more informed than ever before, or smarter than ever before. Surely coping with all the data on the internet can be daunting task. But the possibilities that all of this information offers are so great that I would never want to go back.

2 responses to “Infinite Information”

  1. I am from Zimbabwe and you popped up in my feed because you put Zimbabwe in your post. I am interested in the internet too and I think you are right.

    There is definitely an echo chamber. This is a hot story and some stuff is reposted after events have moved on.

    Equally, it is possible to connect with new people. In something as volatile as Zimbabwe, people act anonymously. They have nevertheless been chasing down the ship An Yue Jiang and seem to be maintaining the pressure to stop her docking and off loading munitions for Zimbabwe.

    From this experience, I think there are opportunities to do quality work and to monetize one’s efforts – and let the echo take over from there. There is also opportunity separating signal and noise. I use Zemanta which is a semantic search engine that throws up links as I post! Its free of course like all good 2.0.

    Good post!