Intellectual Capital Report — Information and Anxiety Up, Knowledge and Decision-Making Ability Down

anxietyWe’ve all heard about the explosion of ‘information’ (or at least data) produced and available in the world. At the same time, there are some real questions about the value of this information. In his new book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell warns that over-reliance on information, and getting too much information, can both lead to worse decisions and actions. Terms like “information overload” and “analysis paralysis” suggest that more information does not always lead to more knowledge (“information that allows you to do something better than you could without it”), or improved decision-making.

At this month’s Ontario Library Association Superconference (BTW quite a few of the presentations are online — this site is worth checking out), Barbara Fister, a librarian from Minnesota, provided a presentation on Information Literacy and the Marketplace of Anxieties. Here are two intriguing excerpts from her presentation:

The National Forum on Information Literacy 1998 Final report stated: “The workplace of the present and future demands a new kind of worker. In a global marketplace, data is dispatched in picoseconds and gigabits, and this deluge of information must be sorted, evaluated, and applied. When confronted by such an overload of information, most workers today tend to take the first or most easily accessed information–without any concern for the quality of that information. As a result, such poorly trained workers are costing businesses billions of dollars annually in low productivity, accidents, absenteeism, and poor product quality. There is no question about it: for today’s and tomorrow’s workers, the workplace is going through cataclysmic changes that very few will be prepared to participate in successfully and productively unless they become information literate…”

Joel Best suggests there are four key players in the formation of social issues: the media who seek compelling stories to tell, activists who want to promote their agendas and solutions, governments that can use issues to gain support for regulating behavior, and experts, such as scholars who want their work to have influence. To this list, Mary DeYoung adds audiences. For an issue to take off, it must resonate with people’s lived experience so their attention can be recruited and retained even after the “facts” have been challenged. Lets take crime as an example. Everyone fears crime, yet crime stories are immensely popular. One study of Canadian news outlets found that over half of all news coverage was focused on crime, law, and justice.

She goes on to explain how these key players innocently or deliberately distort the information they present to audiences, often to induce fear and anxiety to provoke a desired response (such as political or financial support). Information is hence viewed as a political or economic weapon, rather than a commodity to inform players and audiences.

There is as a result enormous skepticism about information, and cynicism around the reasons for its promulgation. What’s worse, the purveyors of information are increasingly charged with bias for the information they ignore, discount or suppress as much as for the information they distort and then present. The blogosphere, and the increased interest in alternative press and investigative journalism, are in no small part a result of that skepticism and cynicism — people want to hear different views so they can make up their own minds, or they want to hear reassurance that what they already believe is true, even in the face of ‘conflicting information’.

So an enormous amount of this ‘information’ is produced, recycled, restated, misstated, strictly for purposes of political and economic argument, to affect actions no more significant than who and what people will vote for (or against) or what they will buy. The ‘audience’ is hence reduced to a passive information role: The role of voter and consumer. Mountains of information is created and disseminated to influence these passive voter and passive consumer decisions.

But these decisions are a minuscule proportion of the total number of decisions, actions and problem-solving activities that the average person faces in their lives. The more important decisions, actions and problem-solving activities — such as how to make a living, who to spend one’s life with, and how to live — are astonishingly uninformed by all this ‘information’. If knowledge is the ability to do something better than would be possible without it, what does this say about the quantum of knowledge — actionable information — in our world? I would suggest that this quantum is actually declining, that we are less capable of making informed decisions on how to make a living, who to spend one’s life with, or how to live, than those of previous generations. Not because those previous generations had any better information (and they certainly didn’t have any more) but because they were better taught how to do these things, how to make use of the information that was available to them, and to distinguish critically between good (useful) and bad (unhelpful or dubious) information. They were simply more grounded than we are today. The consequences of lack of ‘information literacy’ (defined by the ALA as “the ability to recognize what and when information is needed and to locate, evaluate, and use it effectively”) goes far beyond the business costs (low productivity, business errors and poor product and service quality) cited above. The consequences of today’s lack of information literacy include:

  • Learned helplessness — the sense that we are incapable of looking after ourselves and need other people and technologies (guns, mini-nukes, SUVs, big brother) to keep us safe and make decisions for us
  • Mental illness — stemming from the endless anxiety that information overload and learned helplessness lead to
  • Conservatism — arising from fear, longing for simplicity, nostalgia, and desperately seeking reassurance that “everything is all right, nothing needs to change”
  • Civil, political and economic incompetence and dependency — inability to take responsibility and make informed decisions
  • Violence — borne of frustration and an inability to see root causes, inarticulateness, ignorance of the lessons of history and of human nature, and inability to persuade others rationally
  • Fragility and vulnerability — from lack of exposure to alternatives, from passivity and reliance on others to take action, and from the increasing centralization of power, authority, and decision-making this has led to
  • Inaction — in the face of crisis, due to an inability to decide, to know what to do

There’s more, but you get the idea. What is the opposite of knowledgeability and decision-making ability? Stupidity (“inability to understand or learn from experience”)? Incompetence (“lack of ability or capacity to do something”)? Because that is the attribute that characterizes an increasing proportion of the population whose brains have atrophied from lack of practice in acting on information, even as the amount of information soars.

If this is the information age, I’ll take whatever comes next, please. I hope it’s something we can use to make the world better, ’cause information isn’t getting the job done.

Painting “Anxiety” by Regina Lafay from the amazing Survivor Art Gallery

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One Response to Intellectual Capital Report — Information and Anxiety Up, Knowledge and Decision-Making Ability Down

  1. Aleah says:

    Great analysis in the face of the “information is power” mantra. I am reminded of something that stuck with me after reading a book called Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life- the author uses the expression, ‘restlessness in the midst of prosperity’ to exploit the underlying paranoia that often accompanies great wealth.I believe we are in the same state of paranoid abundance, but with respect to information. I write frequently about knowledge hoarding by consultants and professionals. Information = wealth = limits = fear.

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