Friday, February 27, 2009

What It All Means

There's a video going around the Internet about the proliferation of technology and Asian people. I usually don't even watch these things; they're generally naff and/or a waste of band width (with the exception of the one of an American teenager sticking a fireworks rocket up his butt and having his friend light it), but this one was really quite thought provoking, almost frightening. I’ve seen it in several places, but this is the only one I can remember. At the end, they pose the question: What does it all mean?

They didn't answer it, so I will.

Partly, it means, in a relatively short time, we're due to be overrun with Chinese and Indian people. But at least they will all speak English. It also means that, as the 5th most populous “country” on the planet, MySpace better start pulling its weight in terms of foreign aid and UN military support.

But mostly it means we are all getting stupider at an exponential rate.

Think about it; if the most intelligent man in the world, back in 1800, knew, let's say, 10% of all there was to know, he would know only about .01% percent of all there is to know now, and in 5 years time, only about 0.0003473%. We are all, therefore, becoming less intelligent at an alarmingly increasing rate.

As writers, this means we are under pressure to churn out more and more information, while at the same time, facing the burden of having to absorb more data at a faster rate. Even with the advantage of having 5 times as many English words at our disposal than Shakespeare did, this is still a daunting task.

To put this into some sort of perspective: back in the 1980's, I became interested in the history of fingerprinting. Yes, I'm as very sad person, but that's not my point. The thing was, I studied this field over the course of a few years, finding esoteric texts, private correspondence and first-hand histories from sources I worked hard to locate and traveled far to find.

I then had the luxury of reading, absorbing, analyzing, cross-referencing and extrapolating my own findings and ideas from this information. From this, I published several articles in trade journals and newspapers and soon became a sought after speaker at conventions and universities.

All the materials that went into this effort now reside in a single, albeit fat, folder in my file cabinet.

Presently, with 4 Exabytes (that’s 4.0x10^19, and I won’t pretend to know what that means) of unique information churned out this year, it is not unusual for me to acquire just as much data—in the form of e-mails, reports, memos, specifications and project proposals—over the course of a single work day. How is a person supposed to absorb all of that? The answer is, they can't. The best anyone can hope to do is scan the most important bits and attempt to formulate an intelligent decision based on their sketchy understanding of the facts.

This, I believe, leads to stupid decisions.

The video claims that one weeks’ worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in their lifetime in the 18th century (which may be true; how many peasant farmers needed to know their BMI or remember their PIN number?). In order to feed this insatiable appetite for knowledge, useless or otherwise, writers today are left to scan and gulp down great hunks of indigestible data so they can spew it back out as, what they hope are, reasonable articles. These articles then go into that gigantic jumble of disarray that "QI" likes to call "general ignorance."

The next person to write on similar subjects might scan those articles and pull out a few facts. But these facts were probably drawn from other articles whose authors gleaned them from yet other articles that were based on quick searches of Wikipedia entries compiled from FaceBook postings. So the irony is, the more information we produce, the less we know, and what little we think we know was probably made up by an eleven year old delinquent pretending to be a 17 year old girl.

In all probability, in the time it took me to write these words, another sixty seven million gigabytes of data have been spun out, making me (and you) just that much more proportionally ignorant of everything around us.

One can only hope that this constant spinning of information will slow down enough for us to catch up. If not, we will all be doomed to watch our relative intelligence quotas spiral downward into statistical insignificance.

But I hope, no matter how bad it gets, that none of us will become stupid enough to shove a lit fireworks rocket up our butts.


  1. Mental hospitals are full of people who worry about things they can't change. Cheer up!

  2. Ken: What, me worry? ;)