The New World of Information
Version Date: August 26, 2000
The Information Model Then and Now
If we go back about twenty years, we can see some of the differences
in how information functioned then, in contrast with the way it functions
now, thus giving us some clarity about how information works today. Here
are some of the features of that early information era:
Many people, even educated ones, operated on the basis of what we might
call the naïve model of information. Whatever was printed or
written down was credited as deriving from authority and therefore was
true. Many books were indeed prepared carefully and checked for accuracy
by editorial staffs, so this model was not operated foolishly. Even though
there existed lots of false and biased information, many people felt secure
in crediting information from sources they trusted.
Knowing and deciding operated in a climate of information scarcity.
The crucial challenge was finding sufficient information about a subject,
company, decision to be made. Research was a process of scraping and scrounging
in out-of-the-way places to find everything relevant. Textbooks often told
students to "get all the information" about something before making a decision.
Information in possession of one side but not the other created an information
asymmetry, resulting in a power advantage for those possessing the
information. (For example, "How many missiles do our enemies have?" "Is
our competitor working on a new product?") Because information is power,
those who have information have power. (That's why we use expressions such
as "in the know" and why there are still so many secrets.)
The distribution of information was in fewer hands, and was therefore more
limited, restricted, and controlled for political and economic reasons.
It was easier for large media organizations to control or shape reality
for the general population. Distributing information was more difficult
and took more time than it does today.
Information was closely connected to the channel of its distribution (books,
TV) and therefore priced according to the cost of distribution, and shaped
by its channel (TV is visual, for example, so much TV information emphasizes
Today, information technologies such as computers, fax machines, the
Internet, wireless phones and pagers have changed the information landscape.
Information can be created and shared by more people faster than ever before.
Here are some features of the information environment today:
The Educational Model Then and Now
Most educated people are quickly realizing that they must operate on an
investigative model of information, checking into claims of fact
and evaluating the analysis and conclusions of others. An authoritative
source is still a good check for reliable information, but the use of authority
is handled more carefully now. 1 Thessalonians 5:21: "Examine everything
The crucial challenge today is knowing how to deal with too much information.
Terms such as "data glut," "information overload," "data smog" all
indicate that we are swimming in information. Researchers are now challenged
with selecting from among mountains of relevant information. Creating knowledge
now is an issue of how to locate, sort, select, evaluate, and use information.
As information asymmetries decline, a shift in power and hence marketing
strategy is occurring. Since more people have access to various kinds of
information, more people are empowered by the information. For example,
if you know the true wholesale cost of a car, you are in a much stronger
bargaining position with a dealer than if you have no idea what the car
cost the dealer.
Information is still expensive to create, but now that it is no longer
bound by particular channels of distribution, its transmission cost is
now nearly zero and its speed of distribution is the speed of light. Hundreds
of millions of people can now learn a new fact within a few minutes of
that fact's existence.
As information increases with such rapidity, the quality of much of it
is decreasing. Since there are now so many creators of information, many
of them are not careful and some have ulterior motives. The irony, then,
is that just as we are now faced with much more information than ever,
we must apply more care and analysis to it than ever. The value of tested
or reliable information is higher than ever. Hence, infomediaries
who do the legwork of location, analysis, and processing are becoming ever
more valuable. This may be another way of thinking about knowledge workers.
Information is becoming more valued for its utility than for its truth
content. Entertainment and political values shape the creation of information
more than ever. See the article, "Truths of the Information Age," for more
The information revolution is also changing the way education occurs.
Here are some features of the previous model:
The university and the lecture method arose in the middle ages, in an age
of limited information and before printed books. A scholar who had learned
much gave lectures to tell others what he had learned. This scholar was
called a professor. Since printed books did not yet exist, books had to
be hand copied. Books were often chained to library desks to prevent theft.
One way of reproducing books or at least information was for someone to
read the work to students who could then take notes or copy parts verbatim
These readers were called lecturers or sometimes readers. (The term "reader"
still exists in the British university.)
The professor was the storehouse and deliverer of knowledge in a knowledge
transfer model of education. He was "the sage on the stage." His knowledge,
backed by his authority, was delivered to the students. Students were largely
passive recipients of the information.
A Note on the Quantum of Information
Students still need knowledge and concepts, and professors continue to
be distillers, creators, and deliverers of information. But information
is coming into existence so rapidly and there is already so much of it,
that no professor can continue to be the fountain of all that is necessary
to be known. Keeping current is virtually impossible.
Perhaps the most important role for the professor today is to help students
manage and use information. In this mentor model of education, the
professor is now "a guide by the side." The professor helps students identify
a problem, find resources, evaluate them, apply them, and create a result--a
knowledge product. Further, since education is at least as much about who
you become as what you learn, the professor serves as a guide to help you
become a better, more human, circumspect, thoughtful person. Since the
professor cannot always be with you to give you an answer, it is important
that you learn how to learn. The professor should foster a lifelong learning
ability in the student. This dramatic change means that students can no
longer sit passively in class writing notes and memorizing them for tests.
Students must take charge of their own learning, and look within to find
the motivation to educate themselves, under the guidance of the professor
now, and without that guidance later on.
Estimates of the quantum of information and its growth vary widely and
become quickly outdated, but they are so much fun to impress people with
that they are difficult to resist. Here are some, probably already outdated,
but thought to be close to a rough estimate as of August, 2000. More than
90 percent of the information in existence has been created since you were
born, over half of all information within the last three years. There are
more than 190,000 journals published, including medical ones, which publish
more than 380,000 medical articles a year (more than a thousand a day).
Two hundred new books are published each day (70,000 a year). The World
Wide Web has more than 2.2 billion pages, with 3 million added each day.
The visible Web contains about 20 terabytes (the equivalent of about 60
million books of 250 pages each). The invisible Web (databases connected
to the Web but not accessible to search engines) is estimated at about
7,500 terabytes, or the equivalent of 22 billion books of 250 pages each.
2000 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer
and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com