Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Addicted to Information Yet Allergic to Knowledge

The easy availability of huge volumes of data via the internet has led to an epidemic of information addiction. A growing number of people cannot go an entire day without an information update. In a rational society the desire for more information would normally not be interpreted as a bad thing. Unfortunately this condition is increasingly accompanied by an allergic reaction to relevant knowledge thus undermining the potential value of the information addiction.

To understand this condition it is important to first understand what information and knowledge are. Information describes how things are different from each other. For example, information is how we establish that the color orange is redder than the color blue. Knowledge characterizes how things are alike. For instance knowledge establishes that orange, red and blue are colors. Our tendency to use the terms interchangeably is based on the fact that things are connected by that which separates them (e.g., the spectrum that distinguishes colors also connects them). As a result, whether something represents information or knowledge is based on how deeply we interpret it. Since we can only experience contrast, information comes from interpreting our experiences. Knowledge generally comes from interpreting information. Understanding is the conversion of information into knowledge.

These days an increasing number of people are obsessed with information. These individuals typically focus on how things are different from them and each other. For instance, in politics when someone offers information that “proves” a sweeping generalization such as, “all liberals are evil” or “all conservatives are stupid” I hear the sniffles of a knowledge allergy. Where such a person does not self identify as evil in the former case or stupid in the latter, this information primarily serves to differentiate and marginalize the subject. It is the inclination of people to deny the knowledge that connects them to the groups they seek to marginalize (e.g., that there are good liberals and intelligent conservatives) that is symptomatic of their knowledge allergies. Chronic sufferers of this condition tend to exhibit symptoms in all areas of discourse, not just the political arena.

In the Internet Age knowledge allergic information addicts are typically out scouring the Web to amass stashes of information that supports their beliefs while studiously avoiding knowledge that contradicts them. Unlike victims of the class-based or divinely mandated knowledge prohibitions, today’s knowledge allergic information addicts are in a position to appreciate the utility of information but often lack the capacity to fully process everything that interests them. The sheer volume of information that is literally at their fingertips these days overwhelms their capacity to understand it all.

As they accumulate unprocessed information, some people develop a tendency to regard the differences between things as more important than their similarities. This inclination can be exacerbated by the fact that our uniqueness is only meaningful in the context of our informational orientation. As such where we value our uniqueness, we tend to embrace information that casts it in a positive light. But there is a threshold of infatuation with our uniqueness beyond which we interpret knowledge of our similarities to others as a threat to our self-esteem (“I have NOTHING in common with those evil liberals / stupid conservatives”). When zealously informed people cannot remain rational when confronted with such knowledge their addiction to information has triggered a knowledge allergy.

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