This metadata allows us to manage what information we have, and makes the way we store the information less important, particularly in the light of the improved search capabilities, both online and off. Regardless, the proliferation of information is both a gift and a curse. Information can clutter up and interrupt our lives. There is a reason that some of the greatest minds in the world limit the amount of information coming in. Donald Knuth doesn't communicate via email, nor does he use the Internet much. Alan Dershowitz does not use a computer at all. Both of these men have made significant contributions to society without being connected 24/7. There are other ways of getting information besides a computer. These two particular individuals have the luxury of having other people do the information filtering for them. Not all of us have assistants and secretaries to do this for us, but there are ways that we can manage the amount of information coming at us.
Several new technologies have made it easier to manage our information consumption. My favorite among these is XML syndication. Just about everything I read online comes first through my RSS reader which makes it quicker and easier to read all of the websites that I enjoy, and most importantly, without having to wade through the fluff that exists.
Information about information - metadata - but how much of it is useful in a practical way?
In recent times, the phenomenon of information overload has been documented and even given a name in the workplace: Attention Deficit Trait. What ADT boils down to is so much information is coming in that it clogs up the mental gears that would actually be used to do work under normal circumstances. I've noticed this at work, and it has, in fact, been present in some lines of work for many years - before even the advent of the personal computer. People whose attention is drawn to several different places at once - health care providers, stock brokers, service industry workers. All of these professions have had to deal with simultaneous demands placed on their mental faculties for many years. It doesn't make dealing with these demands any easier even if you're long-practiced. Contrary to popular belief, the human brain can only deal with one higher train of thought at a time. Rapidly shifting focus from one thing to the another doesn't mean you're multitasking. The brain cannot process jobs in parallel; it is not a computer. We have not evolved to the point where two different trains of thought can be carried at the same time, though if you shift attention back and forth from someone on the phone to someone standing in front of you quickly enough, it does give the rough appearance of doing just this. If you shift your attention rapidly enough, the blanks in conversation are easier to fill in mentally.
Some information is, of course, necessary to go about our daily lives. But most of the information is superfluous. Often technology products (both software and hardware) are created to fill needs and voids that most of us didn't even know we had until the product came out. Indeed, often these products enrich our lives, but can add complication and stress at the same time. Some are just silly if you were to really step back and think about them.
Google recently announced a new feature of their search engine that allows a user to track their search history. This is nifty, and of course I signed up for it right away. I just like this sort of useless information - I like keeping tabs on everything I've searched for. Google markets the service as an aid to supplement your memory, in case you need to find a search string you used once to come up with some amazing nugget of information that you can't find again. That's not why I use the service, and I bet that's not why most of the other people out there use it either. I use it because I can look and see my entire search history and what I was thinking on a particular day, and I can track my online activity in a very rudimentary way by looking at their little calendar feature. But the biggest reason I use it though is because I can come up with completely useless statistics like "I've done 123 Google web searches from April 21, 2005 until April 27, 2005 at 11:46am." (That's how many I've done up until this very moment.)
Apple did the same thing to me when they released iTunes for Windows. All of a sudden I won't use anything but iTunes because I don't want to lose my playcounts. I won't reformat my computer because I don't want to lose my playcounts when I change driveletters and otherwise simplify my complicated desktop setup. I must have this information. Now that I have these capabilities, I don't want to give them up, and in a strange way they hinder my life because of my slight OCD tendencies. I just can't let go of information.
The upside to information overload
There is an upside to the data that are being created on a daily basis. Much of the data are superfluous, but some of it is not.
The Library at Alexandria was the largest repository of information in the ancient world. The brainchild of Demetrius Phalereus, tourists to Alexandria had their books confiscated so that the scribes at the library could make a copy of the book for the library's benefit. The copy of the book was then given to the tourist, and the original kept at the library. Such was the appetite of the Library of Alexandria. At one time, the Library contained somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 books.
When it was burned, along with it went all the accumulated knowledge of the Greeks and their predecessors. It was not until the Renaissance that much of what had been known over a thousand years previously was rediscovered. Mathematics, medicine, physics, philosophy, history. Some of information at the Library of Alexandria is lost forever, most notably the history texts, because while ideas may be re-invented, historical texts, once lost, are gone.
Where would we be today when it comes to mathematics, medicine, physics, or even the computational sciences had the Library not been lost? Knowledge is cumulative, and when the foundation is destroyed, it must be rebuilt from scratch. If some of the greatest minds the world has ever seen had come along and built on the knowledge of the Greeks instead of rebuilding the foundation, what benefits would we be enjoying today? Of course these are questions no one can answer, but it does make for interesting idle speculation. How many years ahead of where we are today would we be had the Library not burned?
Google recently announced a collaboration with five institutions to digitize all volumes at the University of Michigan, Stanford, and parts of the research libraries at Harvard, the New York Public Library, and Oxford University. This pilot project, if successful, will likely be expanded sometime in the future if it is successful. Just today several European libraries have announced a collaboration to compete with Google's project. This new effort will index the contents of 19 libraries across the EU.
These two projects represent the most important building block to saving these works so a tragedy like Alexandria never happens again. If our entire history is laid out for all to see, it becomes somewhat harder for it to repeat itself without the people knowing about it. Perhaps I'm putting too much faith in humanity, but in any case, it is a colossal step in the right direction.
"Information wants to be free"
One of the most famous catchphrases in the Matrix is "Information wants to be free." Up until this morning when I actually was thinking about information while I was in the shower, I thought it was just a stupid, meaningless line. But it's not. It may be cheesy but there is a ring of truth to it.
What good is information if it's only available to some? Vast fortunes have been made (and lost) by controlling the flow of information. With the advent of the Internet, the playing field becomes somewhat more level. One can hope that the digital archives being created by Google in conjunction with these public institutions will make available the information for free. Unfortunately, I don't see this happening due to copyright and other IP issues.
Recently, scholars have recognized the need for information to be freely available to the masses without overly limiting restrictions. Several licenses for intellectual property have been created. The GNU General Public License, the Berkeley BSD license, and the Creative Commons License which offers varying degrees of control over copyrighted works. All of these are steps in the right direction. Now all that needs to be done is to get everyone on the bandwagon. The main problem with this is that there is money to be made by not being on that bandwagon. From record labels, to scientific journals, to book publishers - information flow is the way they make their money.
In my opinion, there are some forms of information that should be free from a scientific and moral standpoint. These include scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. Indeed, there are already some grassroots efforts to facilitate this taking place. Among them are the Public Library of Science, and arxiv. While amateur mathematicians and scientists are largely a thing of the past, scientific breakthroughs should still be part of the public domain. This doesn't mean that journals like JAMA should be given away for free, but access to their materials should be made available for free to institutions of higher education. MIT has started their OpenCourseWare program, which is a massive step toward leveling the scientific playing field in the US - but it will likely have a larger impact outside the country where institutions of higher learning are only available to the monied, or those with the right connections.
Whatever the future brings, information will continue to become more available to the masses, because that is its nature. And if it's not freely available, it will be created in a free form, as we've seen with the advent and wild success of the user-created Wikipedia, which allows users to create and edit articles by anyone about anything, in more than just the English language.
Information is the most potent weapon in the fight against oppression and inequality wherever it occurs. The free world would do better to inform the ignorant rather than fight their governments; there's a reason that lasting political change is usually instigated by students and not armies.