Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years, you’ve no doubt heard all about the benefits of living in “The Information Age.” It’s framed as a wondrous, liberating time to be alive, when there are no restrictions on what you can discover or create.
While I don’t think this is exactly wrong, I do think that there are some serious misconceptions about how much information itself is worth.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, and I’ve come up with a rough, 3-stage model of how information has shifted throughout history.
Using this model, we can more effectively examine the role information plays in our lives and how we can leverage it to deliver value both for ourselves and for others.
Stage 1: The Desert
This is where we were for the vast majority of our existence. The Desert is essentially a time when good information existed only in isolated instances, primarily driven by experience. This type of information involved basic needs, such as how to build a fire, craft weapons or identify edible plants.
Because nobody really knew much about the world they were living in during this stage, much of what they understood about the world was informed by superstition. Early civilizations looked up at night and saw divine messages dictating their fate. They witnessed people die of diseases and assumed that it was angry spirits exacting some kind of revenge for past sins.
Moving on to the next stage took a very long time, because people hadn’t come up with ways to objectively measure and observe the natural world. They lacked the tools, such as mathematics and the scientific method, to discover reasonable explanations.
The only way forward was a combination of trail-and-error, along with preserving the growing amount of quality information for future generations – namely in the form of written language.
Stage 2: The Bottleneck
After we’d accumulated enough knowledge to officially get out of The Desert, a new problem emerged: gatekeepers. Good information did indeed exist, but it was not made available to average people. Instead, institutions and practices were created to keep the most valuable information in the hands of the most powerful people.
Sometimes it was a matter of using formats that the majority of the population simply couldn’t take advantage of. If you only allow certain people to learn how to read, then only those people will be able to take advantage of information contained in books.
Other times, language was used as a barrier. Latin was the dominant language for scientific works for a very long time, which worked out well for the upper crust of society since Latin was not taught to the average person.
Institutions also played a key role in this dynamic. Governments and religions both kept tight control over information in order to keep large populations under control. Universities have even been part of this system, ensuring that only select groups of people had access to economically valuable information – both in the form of formal knowledge and profitable connections.
Not all of the information held in The Bottleneck was good information. Churches kept their congregations in the dark by giving sermons in Latin, but that didn’t mean that the messages they were giving were actually worth anything. Again, superstition played a major role in how information was perceived.
The difference here is that, while a sermon may have been filled with falsehoods, it was being given in places like Notre Dame – an objectively impressive structure that was built using quality knowledge of architecture and construction.
What was occurring was basically the leveraging of privileged information to build a frame of reference for how people without much knowledge looked at authorities. The message is such situations is clear: “If we know how to build something like this, we’re worth listening to.”
This stage started to break down once public libraries and widespread literacy emerged, but even then it wasn’t enough to move on to the next stage. That only happened when the Internet showed up.
Stage 3: The Flood
Everything changed once the internet became a household utility. Now nearly any bit of information is accessible within a few keystrokes, and knowledge that was once held behind the strictest gatekeepers is out in the open.
The fact that information can now be communicated across the globe nearly instantly has completely transformed life on this planet. Revolutions start on Twitter. Fortunes are minted and destroyed as new technologies emerge and get adopted. People like me, who probably would have ended up as low-class laborers in other eras, can now make something of themselves.
But this flood of information has been both a bad and a good thing for society. It’s been good in the sense that people no longer have to jump through hoops to get whatever information they want. Need to know how to change a tire, cook lasagna or program a computer? No problem – just go to Google or YouTube and ask.
Strangely enough, if you do go to Google or YouTube, you’ll also start to see where the problems begin. I just typed “how to cook s’mores” into Google and got back 442,000 results. That sounds incredible, but now I’m faced with 442,000 different ways to accomplish this task.
I also typed “learning how to learn” into Google and got back over 61 million results. Again, I’m grateful for the fact that such an abundance of resources exist, but I can’t help feeling like I’m staring at a fast-moving avalanche that’s about to overtake me.
How Valuable is Information?
Here’s the question that keeps coming up in my head: if everyone has access to all this information, how valuable is information?
The answer I keep coming back to is “not that valuable.” This is hard to understand for most people, because our societies haven’t caught up with this reality yet.
I suspect this is largely due to the fact that, in previous eras, information was extremely valuable – which is why it was kept out of reach for so long.
Why do I think it’s not valuable on its own? Because, in the absence of strong reasons to select one resource over another, information has no way to communicate its value.
The Internet has made this a particularly nasty problem, because we come up with selection signals that don’t necessarily translate into good information. Picking an information source simply because the author is famous/successful/whatever is one example. Another is picking a source because we think it’s connected to the “next big thing.”
I can give you a very clear example of this dynamic at work: learning how to program. Because programming is a still a very valuable skill, there are oodles of people looking to learn it. As a result, there is a seemingly endless supply of programmers willing to provide information on how to do it.
But if you don’t have any familiarity with programming, you’re going to immediately run into a giant problem: where to start. No matter what, you’re going to run into a million different philosophies on which programming language to start with, the kinds of projects you should start building and where programming tech is headed in the future.
Just sorting through all of this to come up with a half-way rational plan for starting is a giant task in and of itself. And it’s actually a problem that needs to be thought about – the most valuable technologies change on a regular basis, and it’s important to not get caught with your proverbial pants down.
If you spend all your time learning [insert programming language here] and discover that it’s no longer favored, you’ve effectively wasted a large block of your life learning something you can’t use to pay your bills.
This leaves most people feeling hopeless right off the bat. Programming suddenly becomes an intimidating storm of information that can’t be grasped in any meaningful way, and often leads to people quitting before they make any real progress.
This same problem pops up for just about every skill imaginable. Whether you want to learn how to play guitar, weave baskets or bake chocolate chip cookies, there are now millions of opinions on the “best” way to do it. Before The Flood, there was a limited selection of information sources, but this limited selection actually made the process simpler.
Analysis paralysis didn’t really come into the picture until information became ubiquitous, and now we have to deal with it at an insane level.
Another major problem with The Flood is the fact that the sheer quantity of information hasn’t been matched by a large degree of quality. Now anybody with a few firing neurons can put their thoughts out for the whole world to see, and those without strong filters might just agree with them.
My favorite example is the sudden surge of people who think that the world is flat. Yes, I’m not making this up – there are actually people who don’t think that we’re living on a spherical object, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
While it is clearly a failure of critical thinking on the part of these believers, it’s also largely about how ubiquitious bad information is now. Fringe beliefs – especially conspiracy theories – are now all over the internet. And because there is such an abundance of belief, it can give the appearance of legitimacy.
Why? Because there is just so much “supporting” information for just about anything. Whether you think UFOs are regularly visiting Earth or they’re responsible for killing JFK, you can find like-minded people that will help you create an sealed echo chamber to protect you from any contrary evidence.
This is a serious problem. Not only are highly unscientific views (such as climate change denial and the flat earth) being effectively propogated, this dynamic also generates a situation where people who hold those views can undermine reality. Because there’s so much information, it’s now much easier to move the goal posts and dismiss hard evidence by using grainy YouTube videos.
What is Valuable Now?
The two most valuable skills going forward are:
- Effectively packaging difficult complex subjects into easier-to-understand systems that can be used by non-experts.
- Judging the quality of information.
Basically, if you can develop the skills and discipline to wade through all the information out there to find the kernels of truth hidden under all the noise, you’re going to be an extremely valuable person.
The first skill is highly dependent on the first, as I don’t think you’ll be able to discover any real signal to package for others if you don’t have a way to judge the validity of information.
If you’re just spewing data, you aren’t doing yourself or anybody else any favors. Unfortunately, this is what most instructors/”gurus”/whatever do when they offer learning materials. They effectively tell their acolytes, “Here’s all the information you need, good luck!”
What I started to realize is that information by itself isn’t worth all that much – but information with context and direction is worth a ton. Anyone who can aggregate information and put it into a useful format that anyone can read and use is going to provide oodles of value going forward.
Why? Because sorting through the massive amount of noise to the find the tiny amount of signal is hard. It takes time, energy, patience and communication skill. Finding signal requires a level of focus and commitment that the majority of information consumers are simply not willing to exercise.
Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about people who just collate a bunch of data together in a book and call it a day. That’s the formula that Matthew “Question Mark Suit Guy” Lesko used, and I’m not convinced he delivered value for anyone but himself.
Don’t be this guy. (Image courtesy of the 88slide.com blog via Wikimedia Commons)
What I am saying is that, if you want to be of service to your fellow human beings, you aren’t going to do much good by just hitting them with more information.
You will help them if you can provide a framework for that information and ways to apply it. In other words, there’s value in building systems of information rather than randomly distributing bits of information.
For example, my first book was a synthesis of several years worth of effort, driven primarily by applying what I’d read in big academic textbooks about relevant subjects (namely learning and memory).
My process is largely based on the idea that science should come first and professional researchers are more likely to provide quality knowledge than my own subjective experiences. This takes a ton of discipline, because most people who offer instruction don’t take this kind of approach – instead, they simply communicate what works for them and don’t think twice about it.
A few will look for scientific backing after the fact, but it’s exceedingly rare to see instructors who use science as the foundation of what they pass on to others.
To be clear, I understand why this is so common. The books I’ve had to slog through were often dry, long and difficult to get through. It would have been much, much easier for me to just say “Welp, trick A, B and C worked for me – looks like I’ve got a winner!”
But that’s now what I’m looking to provide for the world. I enjoy this kind of work, and I want you, the reader, to save yourself time so you can do other things. Not everybody wants to have a deep level of knowledge about learning and memory, but everybody will benefit from at least understanding the basics.
Think about if I had taken an information-centric approach instead. Rather than compress everything I’d read into a small, easy-to-read package, what if I created a 1,000 page reference filled with every possible bit of information that I came across? Would you take the time to read that? I doubt it.
The trade is actually pretty one-sided in favor of whoever is buying the information system: you’re trading money (a resource that is effectively infinite) for the time and energy of the author (resources that are both limited and invaluable).
You can then absorb years worth of work for a small monetary price and continue on with your life.
If you’re having a hard time figuring out how to deliver value to people, I think the ultimate way to do it now is to build systems of information for others. It’s not a particularly easy path to take – it requires actual expertise, which in turn requires years of work – but it is far more valuable than being just another information source.
Even if you decide not to release it to other people, building information systems within your own life is extremely valuable on its own. If you know how to organize information and use it to your advantage, you can gain a considerable edge over competitors who are struggling to find their way through the noise.
More than anything, don’t make the problem worse. Don’t put out another dry and difficult to understand block of information that adds to the confusion. Make an effort to organize what you know, even if it’s just for you. The Flood doesn’t need another bucket of water.
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