Is there TOO much information out there? And if so, HOW do we gain knowledge from it?

On page 1 of David Weinberger’s book, “Too Big to Know;” he includes a couple very thought prevoking lines; “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” I mean change is often meant to be good or at least is thought to be better than what we currently have. Everyone wants to get what is newer and better, or to keep up with the Jones’, but is change always for the better? When past generations changed with the times, wisdom was exchanged for what was thought to have been better or more advanced and in doing so a lot of common, everyday skills, arts, traits, and ways of life back then, became only distant memories. Take for example the art of starting a fire, cooking over that open fire, sewing by hand, curing meats, making shoes, milking a cow, making material to have clothes, etc. By progress, we have moved forward and have let knowledge slip through the cracks. I am not saying that change is bad, but when we become too reliant on the ease of doing something, (take for example Google search,) then having to do for ourselves becomes too much work. If we were faced with having to provide for ourselves without electricity, i.e. no lights, no heat, no refrigeration, no transportation, then we would be in a world of hurt. That means no Google to look up how to do something, let alone the zettabyte, or sextillion bytes Weinberger talks about (pg.7.) Speaking of bytes and such and with the internet having (according to Weinberger) at least a trillion pages, there is no way that all of those pages can contain fact filled accurate information…(again, what exactly is a fact?) That is where Weinberger says that we can get into knowledge overload, I mean 3 million hits on Google as to what knowledge overload actually is, come on. (pg. 11)

Weinberger also mentions “cherry picking” facts, which can hurt an historian just as quickly as can, reporting wrong facts, or not being objective, critical, or analytical of the research that one collects. For instance, last week we read how in the 1960’s, historians began looking at history in a more social science aspect, when we read this week, that this was not a new train of thought, i.e. looking at different points, such as social, economic, etc. to learn more about history. Malthus, as mentioned in Weinberger (pg.26) saw “facts” in a social point of view, i.e. “logical deductions from premises that he presents as self-evident.” However, later in his life, Weinberger writes, Malthus did further delve into a more analytical method of research. Weinberger also says that “Knowledge has always been social.” (pg. 51) It is this mode of research, that we, as up and coming historians, need to learn. This will allow us to move forward, using critical analysis in our own future endeavors. If we do not follow the methodology of proper research, and just start forming opinions on baseless facts, then as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” Weinberger (pg.36) This can be misconstrued when using the internet, even by some people reading this very blog, as it is only my opinion on what I took away from the reading. It is often inculcated in us (as the general public,) that what we “read” on the internet, is “fact.”

Tosh goes into great detail on how to use the various sources available to us as historians. These sources, such as WHOA…….what???  The WRITTEN word……Heaven forbid that we break open a book, or even visit the stacks in the library. There is nothing like getting out there and finding new information, be it in a primary sources, such as a narrative, a memoir, a diary, etc. I absolutely LOVE the feeling of finding something new to add to the story/conversation within the historiography of a subject, be it a person, or an event. He even goes into some options that many overlook, such as record sources, bureaucratic records, church records, government records, firms, etc. These can be a wealth of information. His details of how to go about uncovering this source material is very insightful, and is of great importance to us as budding historians. I found that the “gaps” section of Tosh’s text (pg. 132) left me wanting more information on how to manage those gaps in my research methods…but that might be something that I can just search the web for….,how about I use Google, … Bing, … Yahoo, …Ask Jeeves, …..just kidding.

3 thoughts on “Is there TOO much information out there? And if so, HOW do we gain knowledge from it?”

  1. I love to find new things from primary sources as well. Last semester, I just found there was many officials’ names on a document of Japanese colonization and they were did not appear in any existing research papers. These names help me to identify actors in my topic. I will never forget my feeling at that time. It’s so exciting!
    You mention Google Search and this makes me to think about another relevant issue: there is indeed too much information, and search engine will order information for you. If we search something on Google search, Google search will not filter information. But ranking of results will vary depends on content scores, language, location, previous searches and so on. As people usually pay more attention on first-page search result, people may get different “facts” for the same issue. Using internet to do research means that we have to spend additional effort to read second and third page search result.

  2. I have a professor that constantly jokingly tells me “did you Google it?” when I ask questions. The answer…usually no. The result…Google tends to actually work out most times.

    So, he showed me this. It’s kind of the shit:

    It is a tool to teach you how to more effectively Google search, which (in theory) brings down your hit count and super random “sources” like 10pgs in. Now that we have things like Google Scholar and Google Books, I actually think the wide array of info out there for us to grab is wonderful — but with a grain of salt. I go find those journal articles from GS in proquest and JSTOR. I look up the books from GB before deciding “oh, this will help me.” The annoying part of the information age we sit in is not only do we do research once to find the sources…then we have to do a second and sometimes third round of research to confirm those sources! It’s not as easy as grabbing a book out of the stacks, checking out the table of contents and index, and deciding if it may be useful. We must think before we cite, and that’s a pain in the ass. But, our new plethora of resources is totally worth that pain, if you ask me. At the very least, it makes me a better historian by having to dig through to find not only what I need and what may help in the future, but also learning how to direct others.

  3. Tiny,

    I believe that one of the most frustrating aspects of the new digital era of technology is this: we were already struggling with the question, “What is a fact?” and now, not only do we still not have all of the answers or know what is fact and what is not, but we have a plethora of information, the size of which we cannot even comprehend. Somehow we are supposed to be able to sift through and somehow know what to take as fact and how to discern the difference.

    However, I am uncertain on how to feel about the new era of information. While I am concerned with issues such as the one i stated above, I also think that we now have at our disposal more information that we ever have, and shouldn’t this mean that we have the best possible potential of knowing more than ever before? Perhaps we just have to accept the responsibility of learning to manage a greater amount of information in order to have the best chance of attaining greater knowledge.

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