University

07/19/2011

Information is not like bread

Breads and grains It seems like we live in an age when politicians and “digerati” believe that universities can be replaced by Twitter – no harm done. 

That, suggest Stewart Brand, is because we think that new information is always better.  So what Aristotle thought 2000 years ago is always less relevant than what Ashton Kutcher tweeted five minutes ago. 

But there are other ways of thinking about information.  Here (with a hat tip to Atlantic Blogger Alexis Madrigal) is a passage from one of Brand’s books: 

Most of this book is Used Information. It is reprinted from various issues of The CoEvolution Quarterly, a California-based peculiar magazine. You can look at that news two ways. If you operate by the Bread Model of Information, it's terrible news. You've been gypped - stale information. On the other hand if you view information as something fundamentally different from bread, there's the possibility of good news. Having lived longer, the information here may be wiser, more co-evolved with the world. It may be more refined, having cycled complexly through the minds and responses of 40,000 CQ readers. And it's been through two editorial distillations; the less-than-wonderful and out-of-date may have been extracted.

The notion that there’s value in information that isn’t cutting edge is out of fashion in our world, but it may be crucial to understand in the digital age. 

Indeed, Benjamin Wachs has argued elsewhere that our obsession with quantity and freshness of information creates a culture of white noise, where quality information is always lost. 

"No one on TV or online is respected for refusing to broadcast, blog or tweet information that is irrelevant," he writes.  "On the contrary, most media companies consider all “content” to be interchangeable, and silence to cost gold."

Whereas previously “expertise” was measured by knowing as much as possible about a subject, in the age of Wikipedia and Google Alerts expertise comes from having effective filters – being able separate relevant information and wise perpectives from the flotsam and jetsam of the information economy.

If that’s the case, it speaks to the crucial importance of the kind of knowledge best found in book and (wait for it) universities.

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Posted at 01:23 PM in

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