Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Age of Information Overload?

A recent article in Gizmodo attracted my attention. The author told us that he lost his faith in humanity upon finding the fact that some kids actually thought that Titanic is only a fictional story. While I understand that the author was exaggerating his point. It still raises a fundamental question. Is this the age of information overload? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The above story reminds me of a scene in Slumdog Millionaire where Jamal, the main character, was interrogated by the police officer on how he could answer the various difficult questions in Who Wants to be Millionaire Quiz when he does not even have a clue on who Gandhi was. And Jamal's answer was sensational, "I might not know who Gandhi was, but do you know the bicycle thief on the road in front of this police office?". In short, Jamal explains to us precisely that each person simply has his or her own niche in terms of general knowledge.

And I guess in this age, having such niche is very important. You can't judge the knowledge of a common person only by the level of his general knowledge on certain events. Yes, it seems foolish that the kids do not know about Titanic. But consider this. Suppose you, a city dweller, go to a village where the farmers know how to produce milk and crops. You watch them do their work and then you are amazed when you finally understand for the first time how your milk and rice are produced.

Now these farmers would probably think that you are an idiot based on their standards of knowledge. From the farmers' perspective they will say something like this: "come on, how come a man does not know how to take milk from a cow? It's common knowledge anyway". Though I doubt that they will lose their faith on humanity simply because you don't know how to get milk from the cows.

An Economist, Thomas Sowell, once said that the best sign of modern development is the fact that modern people need less knowledge in order to maintain a good quality of life. In the past, in order to survive the world, a man must have different set of skills, he must understand the nature, how animals behave, how to produce crops, how to cook meat, how to build houses, etc. How about now? I bet that most of us don't know a damn thing about how to survive in the wilderness or how to produce our own foods and clothes from scratch.

We simply depend on other people with better comparative advantages to produce those things for us and we do what we think are best for us in accordance with our own skills. And this is in line with economics rationality. Why bother spending our resources on something that can be better done by other people? Unless the benefits of doing so exceed the costs, we would most probably choose to do something else.

And the law also works under the same logic. When we are trying to impose certain liabilities to certain people for negligence, judges are required to adopt a standard that is common to such people under their respective categorization. You can't impose a professional's standard to an ordinary guy in doing their job. Everyone should be judged based on his reasonable skills. Only then we can produce an efficient result.

Even when we are talking about the standards of knowledge for professionals, we cannot expect them to know everything. As an example, I am quite confident with my knowledge on securities laws, corporate laws, and Islamic laws, but I am not an expert on say, intellectual property and real estate laws. And it would be foolish if I push my luck on those fields by giving formal advice to my clients without proper preparation. In fact, based on comparative advantages, it would be better if I just assign those intellectual property cases to other lawyers who are more knowledgeable than me (which is also encouraged under lawyers code of ethics).

If we want to be concerned with our generation, I say it's not about the amount of knowledge that a normal person should have, rather we should put more effort on understanding and improving how people think. This is an age where knowing a lot of things is good, but knowing how to effectively find the sources of knowledge is better. What is really important is how people will utilize such knowledge in order to maximize the welfare of the society and produce efficient results.

Thus, teaching people how to think should be the priority. How to analyze things, how to have a healthy skepticism on various issues and beliefs, how to induce people to think creatively and to focus on solution-oriented thoughts. These are the things that will redefine our society for many years to come. It would be useless if we have a lot of people who know a lot of things but don't even have a single clue on how to utilize such knowledge.

So, forget about the Titanic issue. Whether it is based on true story or not might not be highly relevant anymore in the future. Instead, we should teach those kids to understand that people should do their best in reducing the level of human error in the transportation business in order to avoid a case like Titanic and how we can formulate a good policy to reduce such type of accident. One thing for sure, I still have a lot of faith in humanity.


Anonymous,  Thursday, May 24, 2012 3:04:00 AM  

I agree with you, we should put more effort on understanding and improving how people think. We must share information which will benefit them in the future. I read an article about the poets written by Plato, he said that poetry, which are detrimental for adults and children, should be censored since poetry should contribute to the education and well-being of adults and children. What I mean is that, in the golden age, wise men chose what's best for their people and we must do the same.

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