Coping with the Infoglut

We started producing information faster than we could process it back in 1945.  A week-day edition of today’s New York Times contains more information than the average person in 18th Century England was likely to come across in an entire lifetime. In 1971, we were told we saw or heard 560 advertising messages daily. Today that figure is deemed to be in excess of 4,000. But who really knows? The user data in Yahoo alone is said to be equivalent to 1000 Libraries of Congress.

Whatever happened to the fearless prediction of a paperless office?  In the typical business today, about 60% of staff time is spent processing documents. Paper consumption per capita tripled from 1940 (200 pounds) to 1980 (600 pounds) and then tripled again from 1980 to 1990. Despite the advent of electronic communications, it is estimated that each of us now consumes well over a ton of paper.

We produce as much new information every six months as produced in the first 300,000 years of human existence.  And the rate of information generation is doubling every three years. In some areas of knowledge, the implications are profound. Advances in digital and nanotechnology, in genertic engineering, neurology and robotics (smart systems) are astounding. Medical knowledge doubles every 8 years. Half of what freshmen students learn in science and technology classes is obsolete by their senior years.

What about you?  Depending on your field of endeavour, at least half of what you now know will have little or no practical value in your work. It’s called knowledge obsolescence. Which may be one reason why the average knowledge worker will have at least three significant career changes and more than 10 jobs in a lifetime. Almost 70% of children in pre-school today will likely be employed in careers and jobs that don’t yet exist.

People generate information.  It took roughly 7 million years for the earth’s population to reach 5.3 billion. It will take about 40 years to add the next 5.3 billion. And these people are now armed with the capability to acquire just-in-time knowledge, to “mash” it in new and fascinating ways, and to instantaneously share it with others.

The Internet powers exponential information growth.  The amount on time spent on the Internet is doubling every year and every computing device has the same connectivity no matter who owns it – whether a teenager or a corporation. Every person can be a creative artist and a knowledge generator, freely distributing their ideas and work to millions. This “collective intelligence” fuels infoglut.

The critical question for smart leaders is “how do you keep up?”  In 2004, the Journal of Chemical Knowledgeacknowledged that to be truly “up-to-date” in the field chemistry, a practitioner must read 2,000 new publications every day. To screen only the short abstracts, one must read 2,000 pages per day or 70,000 pages/year. And, since the number of publications is also increasing (there are presently over 50,000 neuroscientists writing for 300 plus journals), you must double your reading capacity within 15 years. Indeed, to grasp only 1% of the new knowledge covered in these journals, you would have to read 20 every day.

The answer to the question is that you simply cannot know everything. So, while being mindful and receptive, you need to know how to acquire, distill and synthesize information that is pertinent to your purpose. You need to know how to focus on the things that really do count.  And those things will be the grist for future entries and musings.