Stopping thinking about too little information or too much information, rather, think about search costs

Poking around Cory Doctrow’s Tumblr site today, I came across a Neil Gaiman quote:

For most of the human race, pretty much all of the lifespan of the human race, information was currency. Information was like gold. It was rare, it was hard to find, it was expensive. You could get your information, but you had to know where to go, you had to know what you were looking at, you had to know how to find your information. It was hard. And librarians were the key players in the battle for information, because they could go and get and bring back this golden nugget for you, the thing that you needed.

Over the last decade, which is less than a blink of an eye in the history of the human race, it’s all changed. And we’ve gone from a world in which there is too little information, in which information is scarce, to a world in which there is too much information, and most of it is untrue or irrelevant.

From too little information to too much information in just a few short years? Presumably then, at some point there was a Goldilocks era when we had exactly the right amount of information. So, when exactly was that, 1998 or thereabouts? Gaiman’s rhetorical use of too much and too little information hardly makes sense when considered in finer detail.

True, there is more information today than ever. Almost 90% of all data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. And yes, there is a lot to experience, yet, there is a serious dearth of useful information, as there always has been. Useful information, information that push forward a project or make a difference in saving lives is costly. For individuals, it means pushing yourself further on the learning curve. For firms, it means the adoption of new management practices. Concerns about too much or too little information are orthogonal to a more important line of questioning: what are the costs in searching for the answer.

First published Jul 17, 2013