Learn Something New Every Day!

The amount of information produced in the world is growing more and more everyday, at staggering rates. This growth pattern is not new. In 2006, Hal Varian and Peter Lyman, two economists from UC Berkeley, reported their research about the speed of information (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2006/02/ the_speed_of_in.php). In their research, they looked at new or unique information, such as the first recording of a new song, not every recorded version or literal playing of that song.

In 2000, Varian and Lyman calculated that the new information produced that year was 1.5 exabytes or “about 37,000 times as much information as in the entire holdings [of the] the Library of Congress.” Then they compared the information generated in 2003 (3.5 exabytes) and calculated that new information was increasing “by 66% every year.” Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, added to this overwhelming picture at a Techonomy Conference in August 2010 when he announced, “Every 2 days we create as much information as we did up to 2003” (http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/04/schmidt-data/).

That’s a lot information. When I think of our ability to create, store, access, and manipulate this huge volume of data, I am impressed. When I think about all that information and how to master its intricacies, I find myself overwhelmed. Where do I begin? What I decided to do was find something specific that I did not know and figure it out. I started with exabytes—what are they really? I plugged the term into a search engine and found a source that promised exabyte could be defined and explained in simple language. Instead, it said: “An exabyte is 2 to the 60th power, or 1,152,921,504,606,846,976 bytes. An exabyte is 1,024 petabytes and precedes the zettabyte unit of measurement” (http://www.techterms.com/definition/exabyte). I was an English major, so that definition is not simple and easy for me. Now, I was not just overwhelmed; I felt stupid.

But I rallied. I do know that a “byte” is a unit of measure pertaining to the amount of memory capacity and storage capabilities on my computer. A typical laptop might have 4.00 GB of memory and 500 GB hard drive capacity. GB stands for gigabyte. A different source helped match what I knew vaguely to the new term in my lexicon: “It is common to say that an exabyte is approximately one quintillion bytes. In decimal terms, an exabyte is a billion gigabytes.
An exabyte of storage could contain 50,000 years’ worth of DVD-quality video” (http://searchstorage.techtarget.com/ definition/exabyte). Okay. Now I really get it. It’s a whole lot of new information, every couple of days. Our ability to produce, store and access all this information is phenomenal.

But I find myself wondering, “Who cares?” I do now have a better sense of what exabyte means, but how does that help me? When I go to buy a new laptop, I will still call my nephew for advice because he really knows this stuff. For a few seconds I deluded myself that I had learned something. But I did not learn about computer storage capacity or information generation—all I did was memorize a definition. I am realizing that my worry has nothing to do with access to all this new information; I am dismayed that people might think that knowing facts or details is the same as learning.

Sure, learning involves knowing things, but it is the use of that knowledge to better understand and maneuver in the world, the application of what is known to make things better that constitutes learning. There is an element of problem solving or discovery and experience that marks true learning. It is the quest or the journey for learning that is important, not the details. As Einstein notes, “Imagination is more important than knowledge, for while knowledge defines everything we know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”

Another concern of mine about this vast amount of information is that it comes at me unfiltered, often times unrequested. I get especially bothered when I remember that information is not synonymous with wisdom or even knowledge. The ever-growing mountain of information certainly includes useful data: scientific research, new medical discoveries, new artistic creations, philosophical or religious treatises, and even political speeches. It also includes details I want to know, so I can be a more informed and engaged citizen of my flatter and more-and-more global world village: the U.S. role in Libya, the outcome of attacks on workers’ rights in Wisconsin, the cuts to education inherent in the proposed California state budget and their impact on students, and how the nuclear fallout is being addressed in Japan. Some of this information helps me decide for whom to vote, where to put my time and money, what events to attend, and how to better control my life and immediate environment.

Other information just totally fascinates me. For example, I was thrilled to have stumbled onto some provocative items that were new to me by reading David Brook’s blog entry “More Tools for Thinking” (29 March 2010, http://brooks.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/29/more-tools-for-thinking/?nl=opinion&emc=tyb1). He introduced me to the Edge Symposium, which is a site that questions great thinkers about what they are thinking. The members of the symposium were asked to nominate a scientific concept that should be in everyone’s cognitive toolbox, a concept that would help us all learn about or better understand our world. Brooks shared several examples, including Shifting Baseline Syndrome and Pareto Principle. I did not know about the existence of the Edge Symposium or about these two concepts until I read his blog. I want to learn more. This is information—dare I say knowledge—that would be worth my time and effort to understand.

But the mountain of data being churned out everyday also includes such tidbits as commercials for ShamWOW, Viagra, and Jenny Craig; Charlie’s Sheen’s rantings and people’s comments about those rantings; who was voted off what reality shows; which celebrity has adopted a new child; that Glen Beck is leaving Fox News; that a Nigerian prince needs my help with his finances, and even that Snookie earned more for giving a talk at Rutgers University than Toni Morrison will earn next month on the same campus. I don’t want to know that stuff. I certainly do not need to know that stuff. But it is hard to avoid that information.

Sure, there are other odd tidbits of data that I appreciate, such as tomorrow’s weather prediction, what books are on the best seller list, that taxes are not due until April 18th this year, where to find the best chocolate, even my horoscope on some days. If I try to stay informed on what I want to know by reading or watching the news, using e-mail, searching for specific details via Google or Bing, then this other data sneaks in—and doesn’t go away. But accessing and even manipulating this data is not learning, per se. It could be termed sensory overload, or TMI, if I want to use a new word from the OED.

I guess what I really need to know—regardless of how much information is out there—is how to avoid the silly and annoying sound bites, forget what I did not want to know in the first place, catalog the useful, stumble upon the fascinating more frequently, and then truly master what I want to learn. Search engines can help, of course, but they really just catalog all the growing information into subsets that individuals still need to sort through. I was impressed by Watson, the super computer that performed so well on Jeopardy; its ability to sort through data and play the odds to find the correct answer was impressive. But Watson did not really learn anything, no matter how impressive the demonstration was.

Eventually someone may design a search engine—or perhaps a brain implant farther into the future—that would miraculously help me focus on what I want to know, ignoring the rest. Until then, I need to set the sheer volume of data out there aside and focus on the information of interest and use to me. I need to take comfort in knowing my world and thereby knowing what I don’t know—or at least the boundaries of what I don’t know. Then I can decide what I want to learn, what I want to explore and discover—and learning will become manageable again. This ability to know that no matter how much we know means there is just that much more to know is what keeps the truly learned humble.

Learning, imagination, discovery—that’s what I value, not information for the sake of information. Although I will admit, being able to look up on the Internet where I left my keys would be helpful!

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