A response to Frank Bures “Too Much Information”

April 16, 2011

By John Borst

When I first read the title of Frank Bures’ “Too Much Information”, (The Rotarian, April 2011, page 27) a tune popped into my head. At first I couldn’t identify it, but eventually it dawned on me, that it was Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” (1956). Same start and number of syllables!

It is pretty obvious that Rotary is trying to fathom the role of the Internet and the development of “social media” in particular in our lives. I think we instinctively know that we are in the midst of a major societal change, not unlike that created by the printing press, motor car, telephone or television to name just a few.

In commissioning Bures to reflect on the issue of too much information and to suggest the need for “high-tech time-out(s)” based on little more than anecdotal evidence is fraught with more than a bit of “monkey business”.

The very title begs the question, and by implication says the answer is yes.  The reality is just the opposite. We can never have too much information. The real questions are can we manage our lives in a healthy way while retrieving the vast amounts of information which is now available and can we maintain our health once we possess the information and start to reflect upon its consequences.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that many actions, now termed “multi-tasking” “prevent people from getting a deeper understanding of information.” Businesses have been failing for generations, long before the Internet for failure in that regard.

When Bures references a study that shows a 10-point drop in IQ scores after constant distractions from e-mail, text messaging, and cell phones, he is getting into dangerous territory. The implication is these activities if taken to an extreme are making us dumber. That’s like saying if I never read a newspaper or book I am dumber, meaning less intelligent that those who do. Not so; ones level of intelligence is not changed. What does change is our ability to take a test.

All tests are culturally influenced. I. Q. tests were not designed for the Internet age. They are culturally out of date, no different in a way, than an American I.Q test would be if given to a group of students in India.

Bures is on more solid ground when he describes his own experience and reflections on taking a break from electronic communication. Keeping our activities in balance has been a common theme as we moved from an agricultural society (rest on Sunday) through the industrial era (the weekend) to the information age (flex-time, holiday periods, increased recreation).  It is well known that the highest ranking, most successful CEO’s are avid runners, a process which recharges both their minds and their bodies.

Like it or not we have already entered the post-PC world. The idea of a “computer” as a standalone device is going the way of the calculator and abacus. Soon we will simply assume that everything is digital enabled: the wall, the table top as well as the refrigerator door.

In the end by sharing his story Bures is correct. He recognizes that the flow of information is never going to lessen, only intensify as is the means to retrieve and share it. The real genius of our human minds is that we must learn and exercise the self-control to manage the information flow.

As Rotarians, we should not panic or fall victim to some of the silly research as Bures nearly does. We should try to distinguish the real changes that are occurring around us from that which is just a lot of “monkey business.”