A Tsunami of Knowledge

Information overload is hardly a new concept.



Information overload is hardly a new concept. Long before futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term in his 1970 bestseller “Future Shock,” philosophers and scientists worried about mankind drowning in ever-deepening waves of data. The Roman philosopher Seneca, born in 4 BCE, wrote, “What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in his whole lifetime? That mass of books burdens the student without instructing.”

Indeed, those nattering nabobs who whined through the generations about the harsh impact of too much information hadn’t seen anything yet. Because in today’s Internet-based reality, we have learned that the information well is bottomless and the very term “knowledge” must now be redefined.

And in his excellent new book “Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room” (Basic Books), David Weinberger offers a frightening but cogent look at the impact this Web-based tsunami of knowledge is having on our lives.

“There was always too much to know,” Weinberger writes, “but now that fact is thrown in our faces at every turn. Now we know that there’s too much for us to know. And that has consequences.”

Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and co-author of the bestselling “Cluetrain Manifesto,” points out that the levels of information these days ought to render most of us catatonic, unable to process the fire hose of data gushing at us. He quotes researchers at the University of California-San Diego, who calculated that Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008 alone. Don’t know what a zettabyte is? You are not alone. And any explanation will only confuse you more than help you. Google tells us a zettabyte is 1 sextillion bytes. Hmm. Okay, Weinberger suggests if you calculate that Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” takes up 2 megabytes of space on a Kindle, the zettabyte would equate to a stack of copies of “War and Peace” extending 47 billion miles out into space. Don’t ask.

Though the Internet has flooded the world with information, society remains intact. Weinberger writes, “As the amount of information has overloaded the overload, we have not proportionately suffered from information anxiety, information tremors, or information butterflies-in-the-stomach. Information overload has become a different sort of problem.”

Rather than causing an epidemic of psychological breakdowns, rendering people confused and demotivated, information overload has become a cultural condition. “And the fear that keeps us awake at night is not that all of this information will cause us to have a mental breakdown but that we are not getting enough of the information we need,” he writes.

If the Web has a trillion pages of information and is growing constantly, the world has indeed become too big to know. Weinstein lays out the consequences in this eminently readable book.

Among his concerns: 

• Our old institutions are not up to the task of handling all this knowledge because the task is just too large.
• There are no filters capable of revealing the complete set of knowledge we need. “There’s just too much good stuff.”
• There is also too much bad stuff. “We can now see every idiotic idea put forward seriously and every serious idea treated idiotically,” he writes.

Thus, we are too easily led astray, Weinberger says. “We have so many facts at such ready disposal that they lose their ability to nail conclusions down because there are always other facts supporting other interpretations,” he writes. In this morass, the truth can be obscured or lost completely.

In one insightful chapter about the effect of this information overload on organizations and leadership, Weinberger suggests that top-down, command and control leadership methods are outdated and ineffective. Today’s leaders must abandon the Jack Welch-style of “leading from the gut” and reconsider the vast network of resources and knowledge that defines most big organizations today.

“In the Age of the Net,” Weinberger writes, “there’s more what — and more what???? — than ever. Making a decision means finding your way through a dense thicket of claims, deciding what information to believe and what sources to trust.”

The nature of leadership must change. “Just as knowledge is becoming a property of the network, leadership is becoming a property less of the leader than of the group that is being led.”

Using a series of organizations, from West Point to Wikipedia, as examples of networked entities that have embraced new leadership models, Weinberger explains how hierarchical leadership pyramids steadily drain crucial data as that information gets filtered up the pyramid. Traditional corporations can learn from network-based enterprises. According to Weinberger:

1) Network decision-making scales up better than hierarchical decision-making does, at least in some circumstances. “Hyper-networks,” the multi-component organizations that are huge, spread out and differentiated, such as respondents to major weather crises, rely on distributed decisionmaking in highly effective ways.

2) Network decisionmaking also excels when decisions require a great deal of local knowledge, which is particularly the case when situations are fluid and diverse, or the path forward is not yet fully known.

3) Network decisionmaking can motivate people where hierarchical, top-down decisionmaking would have the opposite effect.

4) When decisions are distributed throughout the network, more of the local knowledge can be applied.

5) When decisions are made locally throughout the network, they are likely to express the interests of the local members, who typically, are volunteers. In this manner, corporate social responsibility programs can provide tangible results and become more than a check-off item on the corporate to-do list.

6) Hierarchical organizations that rest on the pointy end of the pyramid on the back of a single human being are not as resilient as organizations that distribute leadership throughout a connected network.

7) As the business environment becomes more complex, thanks to globalization and to the burgeoning Net, reductive strategies run an increasing risk of going wrong by missing the detailed contours of the local landscape.

What it all means is that there is way too much information for one man or woman to know and process in order to impart wisdom, vision and direction for a corporation or any large organization. This is not decentralization cloaked in a different garment. This is about embracing the Network (in capitals) and allowing it to empower an army of leaders in every strategic corner of the business.

In an era when huge corporations have contributed mightily to the economic crisis that enveloped the globe in 2008, a common refrain from senior leadership was a confession of ignorance of certain behaviors and deeds throughout the organization. Lame as that may sound, the response, beyond sanctions, stricter regulation and criminal charges, might be to consider Weinberger’s essential message:

“The network contains far more knowledge than any single leader could contain, tap or manage. As organizations get bigger and become more essentially entwined with the Net, it will take a network to make the wisest decision.”