Sunday, February 04, 2001

Information Overload

OK, so you like being able to instant message your buddies. And it's great to be able to get a map plotting the exact route from your house to the tennis tournament this weekend. And who could live without being able to tap into the sports scores, recipes, product reviews, music downloads, news summaries, on-line games, digital photos, jokes and emails that are out there? Forget my MTV; I want my cable modem.

In fact, information of all types is proliferating at a rate that makes a hutch of rabbits look like a Benedictine monastery. Researchers at the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkley forecast that humans and their machines will create more information in the next three years than in the 300,000 years of history dating back to cave paintings. Mind you, they're not editorializing as to the worth of any specific information, saying that Entertainment OnLine's list of the ten most popular TV pets is of more value than Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." They're only pointing out that pound for pound, we're churning it out at a far greater rate than ever before.

That's good news for the folks who make the bookcases of the computer age, the storage companies. Whether it's chips or zip drives or CD's, we're talking your basic demand-supply relationship here. The more we make, the more we need, the more they can sell. One of the industry leaders, EMC, has predicted that any given individual could have a terabyte of personal information by 2005. That translates to about 250 million pages of text, spreadsheets, pictures and records, not to mention bad jokes forwarded 23 times, mp3 files of your kid's high school band, composite photos of you and Jennifer Lopez, bookmarks for web sites with guacamole, and that all-important buddy list featuring your pals with names like ilovefrogs and rubjellyalloverme.

The problem is that computer hard drives are like basements or walk-in closets. You can put more and more stuff into them without worrying that you will ever be called to account for it. True, you may never look at any of it, but it's somehow comforting to know you have it. Of course, when's it's time to move, or in this case, get a new computer, you have to pay the piper. But it's a lot easier to transfer 79 megabytes of files with names like "letter about the dog.doc" and "best sushi bars.xls" to your new machine than it is to move that moldy cardboard box with Grandpa's collection of Harper's magazine from the depression... again.

But information isn't valued by volume. Rather, it's the impact it generates. After all, it's widely believed, even if it's not confirmed, that the CIA intercepts and collects billions of cell phone calls, satellite photographs and radio transmissions. Listening or looking at any of it is not an exercise in wealth management; rather it's an exercise in excruciating boredom. It usually means sifting through tens of thousands of "I love you calls" and hundreds of thousands of pictures of people walking their pets. It is mind numbing and generally worthless work... worthless, that is, until you come across the phone conversation that goes, "Yes, Sadaam, we are planting bomb in White House tonight." Then perhaps, it was worth the trouble... depending, of course, on for whom you voted.

From the perspective of historical record, all of this has elevated the status of the common man from certain schlub to potential prophet. That's because countless people who thought that they would leave no mark on society are instead creating a rich personal tapestry for future sociologists, anthropologists and historians to review and puzzle over. No longer do you have to be a movie director, a politician, a writer or a millionaire to leave your legacy to future generations. Now it's all captured in electronic form for someone a hundred years in the future to view: your note to the kid's teacher stating why you have you couldn't figure out the second grade math homework, that spreadsheet listing all of your hockey teammates with comments on their game, a photoshop file where you tried to see what you'd look like if you dyed your hair blond. Unlike letters that grow brittle and turn to dust, it'll all be there for someone to see... if they care to.

That places the burden squarely on our individual shoulders. For unlike landfills brimming with the debris cast off from everyday living, our electronic bookshelves crammed full of stuff with no value are easy to purge. But, like a good pair of jeans or an old pair of slippers, it's as hard to part with a lot of it on an emotional as well as practical level. And so it accumulates in the back, scarcely remembered, barely appreciated, taking up electronic real estate at a frightening rate.

Let's face it: the odds are that, if you're like most people, you have given up doing any electronic housekeeping. That means that all that stuff you used to scribble on paper and throw out when you cleaned out your pockets is now lodged deep in the bowels of your computer, just waiting to be discovered. And while some of it may be charming or informative or illuminating to future generations, most of it is probably just junk. So think of your children, and their children's children and their children's children, and do them all a favor. Take a minute and see if what you're saving is worth the trouble. In words that lie somewhere between Jesse Jackson and Johnnie Cochran, if a level of importance it does not meet, you must delete.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is trying to decide if the itinerary of his Vancouver vacation is worth preserving for all eternity. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and the Scarsdale Inquirer.

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