Reduce your attention deficit

Everything has a cost and this arises from the basic fact that we are mortals. We are given a finite amount of time. Time is the limiting constraint, not money or stuff. The more stuff out there that clamors for our attention, the more acutely we wish “had we but world enough, and time.”[1] Aside from material stuff, we are also drowning in information. They call it the “attention economy.”[2] The result of a surfeit of things to attend to is the premium on attention.
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Wide Area Content and Narrow Area Content

The total volume of information available in the world is unbelievably large and is increasing exponentially. Much of this information is becoming available on the world wide web. I refer to this subset as the WAC, or “Wide Area Content.” WAC includes everything from journals on quantum physics to home videos on YouTube, and everything in between. One just has to do a Google search to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the information available at the click of a mouse.
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A Sunny Pleasure Dome with Caves of Ice

At the risk of being branded a Luddite, I maintain that the world wide web is the single most distracting thing ever invented by humans. The internet is immensely useful for practical matters of course but aside from its utilitarian functions, it is also capable of providing a device for pure play. It can be, in the hands of an appropriately interested and educated human, a virtually (sic) inexhaustible source of joy, the intellectual equivalent of Kubla Khan’s “miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice.” Continue reading “A Sunny Pleasure Dome with Caves of Ice”

The Age of Superfluous Information — Part 2

Sorting and searching through information are uniquely human activities because only humans have an external store of information which needs to be accessed and acted upon. The notion of acting on information stored externally is not associated with non-human animals.

The larger the stock of information, the more expensive it is to search through it to locate the precise bit that is relevant at any particular instance. To make the task of searching more tractable, ordering the information in some fashion—called sorting—becomes paramount. Computer scientists have worked on the problem of sorting and searching for decades with phenomenally successful advancement in our understanding in this regard.
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The Age of Superfluous Information

“There is no more dangerous mistake than the mistake of supposing that we cannot have too much of a good thing.” Thus spake George Bernard Shaw. Excess is as damaging as shortage in most things that are considered good. More is better but only up to a point of satiation. Beyond the satiation point, the marginal utility of a good is negative, as an economist may put it. Particular instances of that generalization are not hard to find.

Food, for instance, is a good that in excessive quantities is a bad as the success of the dieting industry so starkly demonstrates. Yet tens of millions poor people around the world dying of malnutrition and starvation every year is the horrible demonstration of the problem at the other extreme.

The same holds for information. Continue reading “The Age of Superfluous Information”

The World is (Information) Fat: Followup

One of the rewards of writing a blog is the occasional detailed comment that readers (yes, this blog has more than one casual reader) send in. One such comment was elicited by my earlier post “The World is (Information) Fat.”

Uday wrote in: Continue reading “The World is (Information) Fat: Followup”

The World is (Information) Fat


“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.”
— Samuel Johnson quoted in Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.”

If you come to think about it for a moment, what we really want is knowledge, not information. (Recall what the business school guru said: what people want is not a quarter-inch drill but rather a quarter-inch hole.) The good news is that there is a lot of information out there. The better news is that the cost of accessing that information has been dropping exponentially. But the bad news is that the cost of searching through the vast stock of information to satisfy your knowledge needs is increasing.
Continue reading “The World is (Information) Fat”