Made To Fill

Parkinson’s law states, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

By fill-the-void analogy, we have this information-production law:

  • Information expands to consume the resources available to generate and process it.

With these corollaries:

  • As understanding a body of information is more difficult and time-consuming than generating or processing it, no one can fully understand what is available.
  • As good information generation and processing requires understanding, information processes by default serve to overwhelm and obfuscate, and only secondarily do they inform.

And this information-consumption law:

  • Information consumption will expand to consume the time available for processing and understanding it.

With these corollaries:

  • As we increasingly lack the time to process what we consume, the information we consume is not integrated into a consistent framework.
  • In the absence of a framework, external factors help to determine what information we accept, reject, or consume.

Also slightly tongue-in-cheek…. Still, I’ve personally seen that information systems usually hold substantial data that lie unused or unknown to most users.   Whether the unused information is useful or just occupying space, its exploration is beyond the time and tools available to those with a possible interest.

This isn’t a surprise:  in the hands of capable engineers, loading and transforming data will be a successful, if not necessarily simple, endeavor.   Common data taxonomies will include one to hold inbound data, and one to simplify the asking of common, predetermined, questions.   The fuller implications and limits of the data, assessing what else might be important, and making that simple to consume can be challenging, time consuming, and require a tight collaboration between analysts and data engineers.   And because, like all really worthwhile analytics, this process explores the unknown, it will sometimes fail.  Full information utilization is hard work, and shouldn’t be assumed – if we can’t demonstrate our utilization, we really don’t know.     (I do think this is a situation that can be addressed, by the way, and not even with a great deal of trouble.)

If these “laws” apply to our information age, they also pre-date computers by a wide margin.   As early as the 1960’s complaints from academics began to appear: there are far more journal articles than any one person can reasonably be expected to consume.  From that time on the “journal explosion” has been a consistent theme in academic circles.  And the “there is too-much-to-read” grouse-track runs back well before that – it appears that even a gifted polymath would be overwhelmed after 1800 or so.  Information overload isn’t new – we might even trace the beginnings to the time of Gutenberg.  The difference between one printed book and a million printed books is one of degree.

The pace and scale of overload have increased, though.  With increasingly more to consume, we consume ever more and assimilate increasingly less.  Until in the end, we’re asking what our friends think, or some authority thinks, or what Google “thinks,” instead of even trying to figure it out.   As with other situations of extreme abundance, information has become undervalued, but more importantly it has become quite literally underappreciated.   When speaking, I’ve had the surreal experience of seeing audience members Google what I’m saying, as I’m saying it, to ascertain whether they should believe my words.   At that point, the game is indeed up – what is known, unknown, learned, agreed upon, or rejected is derivative and ultimately arbitrary.

I’ve recently enjoyed reading several essays on the topic of fake news, partisanship, tribalism, and its relation to how we consume information, including this one  by Amanda Taub.  I particularly liked Taub’s piece, but I also wonder if we overcomplicate matters.  Whether or not Parkinson-like laws of info-compulsion are operative, I believe that everything truly starts with the information we consume and how we assimilate it.  If those processes are not fully functional, even for thoughtful people, the problems of partisanship and information echo chambers seem very sure to follow.

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