Mark Twain famously said that the trouble with whiskey is that too much is never enough. I believe the same phenomenon prevails in this modern information age, only I am not talking about booze. We all are deluged with more information than we can process. People walking down the street or sitting in restaurants are incessantly talking into invisible microphones or reading texts, borne along on an endless tidal wave of information oblivious to the world around them. A growing number of them are being killed in car wrecks or run over in pedestrian crosswalks because they are riveted to their smart phones.
But there is a legitimate question whether all this data is actually making us smarter, more productive or safer. Like booze hounds ordering another round and then another and another, we keep grasping for more and more information as if the very volume of information would make us wiser, richer and safer. Minute by precious minute our lives are consumed in a mad quest for ever more data because it is clear that the information we have is not enough. It is accepted wisdom that the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, but that is precisely the cycle we are caught up in.
The steadily declining test scores of school students who, through the magic of digital technology, have access to more information than their parents ever did suggests something is seriously amiss. They have mounds of information at their disposal, but lack the wherewithal to handle it - to glean real world wisdom from the tide of information washing over them. They squander billions of hours chatting and texting away, sharing rumors and gossip, to no coherent purpose. It is a fair question whether they would be better off without those devices.
Our government offices and business enterprises are likewise caught up in the information revolution with personal computers on every desk and clever software controlling factory floor machinery, and yet somehow productivity growth is stagnant. It is a given that economic growth depends on gains in productivity. We are limping along at 1-2 percent growth rates because of anemic productivity. Economists ponder the vast new information revolution all around us and wonder why it is not boosting productivity.
Likewise, our national security data gathering apparatus is a sprawling octopus tapping phones and e-mails around the globe, assembling vast archives of information about terrorists bent on havoc, but the sheer volume of the information thus gathered mitigates against effective analysis and effective use of it. Every new incident of terrorism brings reports that there was solid information about the culprits in the system, but it was somehow overlooked. We are drowning in information, but too much information does us more harm than good.
The information revolution as it is now playing out is getting away from us, running amok. We are overwhelmed by both the volume of information and the speed with which it moves. We are so busy processing information we have little time to think. I fear that to some extent young people are not learning how to think and we older folks are forgetting how.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.