The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 23, 2000

Coping with an information overload
By R.P. Sapru

A DISTINCTIVE trend of recent times has been the growing importance of information. In keeping with this trend, the present age is called the information age. The print media and the electronic media vie with each other to provide the latest information. The World Wide Web is based on the concept that information should be available whenever and wherever one wishes to access it.

Information gathering and dissemination is also a rapidly growing and vastly profitable business, especially since subtly tutored information helps to promote products or services. Information is where the money is. No wonder then that it is said that information is power. Information is considered central to the ability of the individual to make a choice. For that reason information is also widely perceived to be the foundation of a democratic state.

So far so good, but then there is a serious problem. Native information (information unsullied by any processing), physical or abstract, is of no value, unless put to use. For instance, the equation E = mc2 is essentially a bland statement unless put to some practical use, as for the making of atomic energy or for the exploration of space. Thus value addition to native information is made by the human mind. Whereas information is inherently neutral, processing of that information by the human mind is anything but. Contrary to what happens in non-human biological systems in which the processing of information is subject to immutable laws, processing of information by the human mind is subject to "prejudice" because of an innate propensity to suppress, disregard or blank out some of the information, the range and dimension of the latter process being unique to every individual.


The limited ability to store information causes the human mind to periodically delete some of the stored information temporarily, or even permanently. Such suppression of information may occur consciously or even unconsciously. This process of suppression of past information is influenced by, amongst other things, the quality and range of the experiences of the individual. Thus the processing of information by the human mind is not neutral.

Processing of information can introduce two forms of distortion. When some part of native information is left out or suppressed, whether deliberately or otherwise, the result could be called disinformation. On the other hand when deliberate distortions are introduced by providing wrong information the result could be called malinformation. For instance, organised malinformation is used by big corporates to promote the consumption of alcohol and smoking for the purpose of making huge profits.

Distortions are introduced when information is processed by the human mind. Processing of information has two components one that involves merely the communication of facts, verbal, visual or printed, and the second that involves evaluation of that information. Distortions can be introduced at one or both these stages. The quality of information needs to be judged on the basis of the degree of distortions introduced at different stages. In the case of the human mind such a system of quality control has proved elusive so far even though the need is obvious and pressing.

Given the fact that information is power, technology is, at present, geared up to increase the speed rather than the accuracy of information. This is why events can be sincerely and accurately evaluated only years after they have occurred. Historians know from long years of experience that contemporary information cannot be evaluated dispassionately in the current time frame. Consequently, history is not written contemporaneously. Even so, different historians do give perfectly honest but vastly different interpretations of the same set of facts. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre is a classic example of this tendency. British and Indian historians view the event from diametrically opposite standpoints.

The exponential growth of information in recent times has already led to a situation where much more information than can be assimilated by the human mind is available. So computers are needed first to categorise the available information and then to perform some sort of deft weeding, though not of quality. Even so, very few people evaluate independently any given block of information; for the rest, information is accepted at face value without any evaluation. Application of such information cannot possibly represent any independent evaluation but simply a response to the most persuasive or easily accessed information. From the toothpaste you use to the newspaper you read, the food you eat and the clothes you wear, to the medicines you take, there is a vast array of information which needs to be accessed and evaluated before a decision can be made and yet, it is extremely difficult to make a proper evaluation of any or all sources of information without some help. It is for this reason that advertising is such big business today. Although advertising is ostensibly promoted as a means to provide consumers with a choice, more often than not, it is designed to force a choice on the customer.

It is generally accepted in medical practice that the patient has an inalienable right to information about his ailment. However, no one has ever explained how the patient should be equipped to evaluate that information. Neither can the doctor provide complete information to the patient, nor can the patient put the information to use without help. Being ill-equipped to make an informed decision, very often the patient leaves the decision-making to the doctor. So, while technically information may have been made available, the wherewithal to put that information to use is much more difficult, if not impossible, to provide.

Currently the general attitude appears to be one of satisfaction with providing access to information even though the authenticity of the information cannot be ensured. There is, therefore, a pressing need to devise a mechanism that will ensure a certain minimum quality of information. Then, and only then, will the true potential of information be realised and the foundations of democracy be secured. Until then, the value of information, as also the technology that provides access to information, will remain rather limited and liable to abuse.