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Too Much Information, Too Little Understanding

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By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; 12:00 AM

What if everybody just took a timeout?

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Now there's a concept for a TMI-addled nation. It isn't only Too Much Information, but the pitch and tenor of delivery that have us in a persistent state of psychic frenzy. From cable news to microblogs to the latest -- "Fox Nation" -- life's background music has become one prolonged car alarm.

The market's up! The Dow plunges! Obama fired the GM CEO! Greta's husband helped Palin!! OMG, Obama's taking 500 people to Europe and Merkel doesn't like his new deal and they're taking our assault weapons and we're all going to be communists!!

But first, if your erection lasts for more than four hours, contact your physician immediately.

The phrase "too much information," a now-cliched talk-to-the-hand deflection, isn't just a gentle whack at someone who tells you more than you want to know about his Cialis experience. It's a toxic asset that exhausts our cognitive resources while making the nonsensical seem significant.

TMI may indeed be the despot's friend. Keep citizens so overwhelmed with data that they can't tell what's important and eventually become incapable of responding to what is. Our brains simply aren't wired to receive and process so much information in such a compressed period.

In 2006, the world produced 161 exabytes (an exabyte is 1 quintillion bytes) of digital data, according to Columbia Journalism Review. Put in perspective, that's 3 million times the information contained in all the books ever written. By next year, the number is expected to reach 988 exabytes.

The massive explosion of information has made us all a little batty. Just ask the congressional assistants who field frantic phone calls from constituents.

"Everybody's come unhinged," one told me recently. "They think we're going to hell in a handbasket. And maybe we are."

Who knows?

The unknowableness of current circumstances, combined with a lack of trust in our institutions, may partly be to blame for our apparent info-insatiability. People sense that they need to know more in order to understand an increasingly complex world.

And, of course, it's fun. The urge to know and be known is a uniquely human indulgence. Being connected to friends and colleagues without having to inconvenience one's gluteus maximus surely must stimulate our pleasure center or we wouldn't bother.


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