How to overcome information overload

We live in the information age. No matter whom you are or where you live, you are now as close as a computer and a telephone line to a virtual sea of numbers, words and pictures on every possible subject. You have got access. The internet has been hailed as the second coming of Guttenberg, the great democratize of knowledge, our salvation from all ignorance. It has also been demonized as a smut peddler, a substitute for life, a potential addiction and the final destroyer of the printed page.


It’s just a tool, as morally neutral as a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. Like any tool, it can be used for a variety of motives, and it can help you or hurt you, depending on how you misuse it. The good news: Just about anybody can create their very own Home Page.


The bad news: Just about everybody has created their very own Home Page. Good News: Everything you could possible want or need to know is online. Bad News: Tons of stuff you have no possible interest is also online. Good News: It’s all there. Bad News: You have to sort through it all and a lot of the information is wrong.


Your job is to find the good stuff while avoiding the bad, the irrelevant, the inane and the most important, the downright wrong. You can get lost there and you can waste a ton of time trying to find your way back. Let’s put this all in a proper perspective.


Four fundamental truths about the internet:


1. Most People aren’t on it yet:

As part of the 1994 republican contract with America, House speaker Newt Gingrich promised a computer, not a chicken in every pot. Fact is, though, lots of folks still don’t have computers, and many of those who do have them use them as electronic toys and not reference libraries.


Only 18 percent of mutual fund shareholders have internet access and only 28 percent of them have gone on line to check mutual fund sites, according to a recent study sponsored by American Century Investments and reported in the New York Times.

Mutual fund shareholders are hardly ghetto dwellers and their ranks undoubtedly include some of the early adapters who try out the new technology before the rest of us become convinced. And yet 82 percent of them don’t have access to the net and 72 percent of them haven’t borrowed somebody else’s computer or used the desk terminal at work to check up on their own money. Accesses will, of course continue to rise, but predictions of the world web community are as yet premature.


2. The net wont wipe out other Media:

New media don’t destroy old ones. They cause the old ones to change. Case in Point: the advent of television was supposed to run radio right off the airwaves. All the pundits said so. Radio had been our constant companion, keeping us company, educating and informing us and telling us stories endless stories.


Radio didn’t die when television took over as our main source of news and information, our national storyteller and our talking night light. It changed from broadcasting to narrowcasting with focused formats like easy listening, oldies, hard rock, soft rock, all talk and all news.


We call various personalities for financial and love advice and medical advice. We go to Art for UFO and alien invasion updates and to Rush for a big swig of conservative philosophy and media bashing. Radio has survived and thrived by learning to serve different needs.

3. You wont become a Net Junkie:


Heroin is addictive, Nicotine is addictive, Caffeine is addictive, Alcohol is addictive, at least for people who are genetically susceptible to alcoholism. The net is not addictive. There’s no such thing as “net addiction”. It may absorb way too much of your time, especially at first. For some it may supplement and perhaps even replace face to face human contact, as “virtual relationships” become a fact of modern life.


For some it has no doubt become a way to escape real life or a means of manifesting inherent compulsivity. But so far as we know, it doesn’t alter brain chemistry or increase the number of neuro receivers. Net withdrawal to the extent that it exists is psychological and not physical. And the compulsive and evasive will always find means of escape, perhaps playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of 51 as the old Statler Brothers Classic puts it.


4. Information is not wisdom:

It’s not even knowledge, its just information. YOU ARE THE QUALITY CONTROL. The net is disorderly at best and total chaos for the beginner. It’s awfully hard to find your way. The computer gives you access to just about everything, but it doesn’t synthesize and sift. If you haven’t been trained to abstract, synthesize and summarize, this can be an enormous and time consuming challenge. And finally you must distinguish the wheat fro the chaff, useful information from nonsense, true facts from downright fabrication.


Five ways to verify information on the net:

1. Check the date:

People always check the “best if purchased before” date on the carton of milk before putting it into their cart. Information has a shelf life and can spoil too. Check to see when the site was last updated.


2. Consider the source:

Don’t unplug your skepticism when you plug into the net. Boot your bunk detector when you log on. Always ask the fundamental question: ‘Says who’? Notoriety is not a substitute for knowledge and credibility does not equal veracity. Even well known and widely acknowledged sources can be flat out wrong.


3. Track down the ultimate source:

By the time you get your information online, it may have passed through many computers, been filtered by many minds. What is the initial source of the information? Pay attention to the citation, the “according to”. Sometimes you have to hunt to find it, lost in the linkage garble that tells you where messages came from.


If you can’t find the primary source ask. If nobody will tell you where the stuff came from, be especially suspicious. This isn’t just a problem for online information, of course. ‘Usually reliable’ print sources can be just as wrong.


4. Separate fact statements from opinion statements:

A fact statement can be verified. If someone tells you that its raining you can look out the window to determine for yourself if moisture is indeed falling. A fact statement can be true or false. It may, in fact not be raining in which case “its raining” is a false statement of fact, but its still a statement of fact because you can prove it or disprove it. A false fact statement may be innocent or intended to deceive. “The weather stinks” is an opinion statement. You can determine the presence or absence of precipitation, but you cant prove that the weather stinks.


Some folks love the rain. Even “its raining” may be subject to interpretation, of course. One person’s rain is another person’s drizzle or heavy mist or thick dew. There are few absolutes in this life. But you can and must separate fact statements from opinion statements and evaluate them accordingly as you sift and winnow your way through the bewildering array of info bites on line.


5. Cross Check:

“If your mother says she loves you, get a second source”. This bit of cynical wisdom drives every good reporter to verify fact statements for accuracy by getting a second and perhaps a third source. If sources conflict, get a tie breaker or simply note that you’ve got conflicting facts to deal with and withhold judgment before basing your conclusions on such a shaky foundation.

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