Sunday, April 23, 2006

How Can I Think With My Head Full of Information?

Is the internet incompatible with the production of high-quality thoughts?

Nicholas Carr blogged about this recently and wondered if after all you really can have too much information. The obvious answer to me is yes, just like you can have too much water.

Carr references a related story from the Guardian which quoted the current American Library Association President Michael Gorman as saying that the internet is "a hall of mirrors"--apparently meaning that truth and myths get all mixed together. It's a simplistic formula from Gorman. The internet can be a hall of mirrors, producing confusion, but at others times it has the opposite effect. Too often when I see a Gorman quote, it seems to lack any depth of thought, as if he surfs the Net all day and imbibes information without ever stopping to give it much scrutiny. But here's the doozy from him:

"No one would tell you a student using Google today is producing work as good as they were 20 years ago using printed sources. Despite these amazing technical breakthroughs, these technologies haven't added to human wellbeing."

Gorman has the unfailing ability to take a position that compels you to automatically take the other side, and you know you're right.

I remember 1986. I remember those print resources. Gorman is dead wrong. Students using Google today are doing much better work than they did with those awful, frustrating print indexes. What an undebatable point! With Google, students can spend less time looking for things and more time writing their papers.

Carr actually seems approving of Gorman's comment, as if intimidated by his lofty title. But I think there is a good point here from Carr that the unending collection of information can be a trap. There comes a time when the research must end and the "thinking" and writing begin. The search for information becomes the new goal because the researcher fears the thinking and writing part of it. I know that happens to people--another undebatable point.

Stowe Boyd has just weighed in on all this and sees it as "anti-web psychobabble." A rather defensive response, I think. The top Web 2.0 people are quick to scoff at the pitfalls of the internet.

A close library analogy for the internet as it is today is Jorge Luis Borges' "Library of Babel." Like the internet, that library had too much noise--information worthless to 99% of all people and difficult to fight through to get at anything worthwhile. But the Library of Babel had a good side--all the hidden gems lost in the mountains of worthless books. The Perfect Library to which the library profession is headed would be the Library of Babel without the impeding noise.

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