Thanks for the memory

Fascinating article on the BBC about the information explosion. More data is being produced per person in the last few years than in the whole of human history combined. Being a communication studies graduate I’m not surprised. Since the first exo-somatic memory inventions – that is memory which exists outside the human brain, such as writing – we’ve been on a steady path of knowledge accumulation. Gutenberg, coupled with increasing literacy took this to a whole new level. This helped to lay the foundations for the Industrial Revolution because new knowledge and inventions could be transmitted great distances and shared amongst many. Can you imagine science existing without journals and books?

In this, this Information Age, we’ve taken a step almost as big in it’s way as Gutenberg’s first printing press. Massive amounts of information on tap from books, CD-ROMs, the Web, interactive television, radio, newspapers… More than we can deal with, isn’t it? And some are arguing here that this is a problem – too much information. We can’t use it all, we can’t undesrtand it all. One person commented that the amount of information now in existence made it harder to have people of genius – the sort of innovators we had in say the 1800s who knew everything about chemistry, botany and engineering. Nowadays you struggle to master one small piece of one of those disciplines. It has been suggested this means we don’t get people looking at the big picture.

I don’t hold with that at all. We have to concentrate in certain narrower fields now because we have built upon what those with a wider knowledge in times past laid out for us. But so did those genuises of the 1800s. It’s jsut we did it faster. And the knoweldeg is far more democratic in that it is far mroe widely available to all. Besides which I remind these people of a maxim I have tried to live by, uttered by the immortal Sherlock Holmes, who said that a learned man should carry in his head that knowledge he is likely to require in normal everyday life. For the rest of the time he should keep a good library.