TMI: Too much information?

Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes of information created. We [now] create five exabytes every two days. See why it’s so painful to operate in information markets?

–Google CEO Eric Schmidt

put that quote in perspective, five exabytes of information is the equivalent of 250,000 years of DVD quality video.

Chances are you have a smartphone. If so, you have access to more information in the palm of your hand than any other generation at any time in history.

Entire libraries, the collected wisdom of entire nations, all in the palms of our hands. We don’t think about it often, yet it is incredibly important. This information explosion has lead to an amazing expansion of choice and the democratization of information. Of course, with the good comes the bad.

With more information there is more multitasking, which is shown to increase stress. Creativity is also taking a hit, as people who are in a situation where they are unable to focus on one task for a reasonable period of time are shown to be less creative in their handling of tasks.

Another concern we often hear is that the internet—and with it the saturation of information—is “dumbing us down.” The evidence contradicts this, however. For example, the average IQ in the United States has increased by 10 points since 1985. In fact, the rising of IQ scores is seen worldwide, in what is called the “Flynn effect,” which is named after James Flynn, an American political scientist.

So, concerns about too much information—no, not that kind—may be overblown. And these concerns aren’t unique to our era either. As Joseph Schumpeter wrote in the Economist,“the Victorians fussed that the telegraph meant that ‘the businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump.’”

And besides, when it comes to information, technology takes a back seat to the human body. According to a study co-authored by Martin Hilbert from USC and Priscila López of the Open University of Catalonia, it was calculated that although humanity can store 295 exabytes of data—a number with 20 zeroes—at minimum this amount of information is “less than one per cent of the information that is stored in all the DNA molecules of a human being [emphasis added].”

The last factor I will discuss is the democratization of knowledge. Even in many of the world’s poorest countries, large amounts of the population have access to mobile phones and the Internet. A regime like Syria’s cannot hide their atrocities from the world like was once possible. Information flows more quickly and expands more rapidly than ever, and this means the world is able to rally around and support causes in a fraction of the time it once took. And while this also leads to many short-term fads and cause célèbres, it increases accountability in the long run.

As always, technology is a reflection of the society and the people that utilize it. Our technology has led to a massive expansion of information, and the way that information is used, in ways both big and small, will define the course of our future.