Socrates Exchange: Do we have too much information?

Oct 19, 2010

We often hear of people suffering from “information overload.” To what exactly are we referring? Is it just that our brains are too slow to process the information now available? Does more information necessarily lead to more truth? Does more truth necessarily lead to a better world? What are the existential ramifications of living in a world where all information is always immediately available? Are there reasons to slow down our development of information technology? Is slowing down even possible given competitive global markets? Must we adopt the technology or get left behind by those who use smarter machines? Where is all of this taking us? Who is in the driver’s seat? Should we resist?


  • Nick Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, Advisor to the Socratic Society at UNH and Project Advisor to the Socrates Exchange

We'll also hear from

  • David Tirrell-Wysocki, Executive Director of the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications in Manchester and former longtime reporter for the Associated Press
  • Robert Mair, Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department and faculty member for Neuroscience and Behavior at the University of New Hampshire

From the project director:

Do we have too much information?

Well in 2010, consider these facts that show just how information and access to information have grown exponentially.

  • Currently there are 31 billion searches on Google every month.  In2006 it was only 2.7 billion.
  • The first commercial text message was sent in 1992.  Today the number of texts sent and received every day, exceeds the population of the planet.
  • By 2013, a super computer will be built that exceeds the computational capabilities of a human brain.  By 2049, a $1000 computer will be built that exceeds the computational capabilities of the entire human species.
  • In 2006, the world produced 161 exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 quintillion bytes) of digital data.  That’s 3 million times the information contained in all the books ever written.
  •  It’s estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person would likely come across in a lifetime in the 18thcentury.

That’s a lot of information! It’s not just facts and figures and scientific studies.  Emails flood our inboxes every day... important reminders for work, a check in from a friend and in between are junk advertisements and spam.  For some, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have increased the way we connect.  For others, status messages about one’s dinner plans or their child’s latest achievement is too much information. YouTube allows us instant access quirky songs, forgotten TV episodes, or the latest viral video made by two teenagers half a world away.  Plus there are text messages, instant messaging, and online chats. 

The result has made many of us into multitasking maniacs.  We text as we drive. We watch TV as we check email. We listen to music on our IPod while reading the latest novel from our Kindle.  At work we may be texting, reading blogs, and talking on the phone at the same time.

With all that, it begs the question is too much information ever too much information?

Certain science seems to suggest that may be the case, at least according to the brain. We can have too much information. A neuroscience scientist I interviewed for this show says that the way the brain is made up, it can only hold on so much information before it can no longer function as smoothly. A University of London study found that constant exposure to email and texting can lower your IQ by 10 points.  That’s more than twice the amount as smoking marijuana and comparable to losing a night’s sleep.  Others say it cuts creativity and deep thought, that it stops the individual from really thinking about how, why and what they’re doing .  Many, who find themselves constantly plugged in, find that it’s hard to unplug.  In fact, new research has shown that digital stimulation can have an addictive quality comparable to drugs, alcohol, food or sex.

But then again, isn’t this just a part of the world changing to with the times?

Throughout history, many have felt overloaded by information. During the Roman Empire, the philosopher and statesman Seneca lamented at a changing Rome.  Now connected by roads, a civil service and a postal system, Seneca felt that this rise in communication was ruining human society. “The more connected a society becomes, the greater the chance an individual can become a creature or even a slave, of that connectedness”, said Seneca.   Many felt this same stress after the invention of the printing press.  We look back at these times and can’t imagine that a Roman or a post Gutenberg German could feel the ‘information overload that they did’. 

So if the growth of information is inevitable, what does it all mean?  If there was a way we could stop or reverse the flow of information, would that mean that we’d fall behind other countries that don’t?  Does more information lead to more truth?  When you can find bomb making instructions on the web and when organizations like WikiLeaks threaten national security, does that mean that certain information needs to be ‘censored’? We assume that more information makes us better, but is that the case or can it have the reverse effect?  

That’s what we are asking on today’s Socrates Exchange, do we have too much information?  Now it’s your turn.  What do you think? Get Socratic and let us know!

-Keith Shields, Project Director for the Socrates Exchange.