Too Much Information

by Taffy Cannon

In a world awash in acronyms, some have become so universally known that everyone from Great-Aunt Edna to your neighbor’s preschooler can tell you what they mean.  One of those is TMI, for Too Much Information.

Generally it’s used to cut off somebody who is sharing a whole lot more than you want to know about a medical problem or procedure, or reportage of somebody else’s outcries in the throes of passion, or an explanation of just exactly what goes into the passage of federal legislation.  It can also be more benign, as when a fervid engineer shares all 1,439 steps in the creation of a biodeboomax, or when your dieting cousin takes you on an eight-ounce by quarter-cup rundown of the previous week’s caloric intake.

Too much information, however, is something altogether different to many writers, more on the order of  a way of life.

We are always accumulating too much information, because most of us love doing research and have great difficulty stopping, even when it’s time to write the book.  And then we have to continually fight the urge to provide an information dump when a casual aside is more appropriate, to mention somebody’s use of a galvanized widget-cutter without outlining the history of widget cutters, or taking a side trip into the galvanizing process.

There’d be a Twelve-Step program for this, except that the committee researching bylaws is still checking out how other nonprofits got started.

Too Much Information is also descriptive of everything that is currently right and wrong about the emerging electronic society.

Every minute of every day, anyone who logs on to the Internet has the possibility of being sucked into a million different informational black holes.  It is deliciously easy to follow a story that appeals or intrigues, to learn the nuance of who said what and how, to become an instant expert on pretty much anything that currently tickles your fancy.  And if you’re following it on Facebook, you also get to add your own impressions, and maybe even start a little war if you’re feeling feisty.

What’s scary is how quickly this informational explosion has happened, how fast we have moved from looking something up in the outdated Britannica in the hall bookcase to immediately exploring every aspect as seen by an array of different but attentive eyes.  Now we can get not only the background but also every tiny development on a breaking news story.  Not in the morning when the paper lands on the porch, or on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, but right this very minute.  As it unfolds, usually with video.

Simultaneously as reports whiz in from parts of the world recently viewed as remote and exotic, the bloggers rev up: pinstriped political reporters briskly tapping New York Times keyboards and dudes in their underpants hunched over laptops in the parental basement.  No need to wait for analysis any more.  It’s concurrent with the events, and often precedes them, since a frightening number of these people know exactly what they want to say long before there are any facts to bolster the prejudices.

So who do you believe?  What’s really happening?  And how will future generations make sense of this informational explosion, if they even care?

James Geddy House

When the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began, archaeologists were puzzled by fragments of glazed terra cotta found in digs around town, often in the filled-in privies where broken crockery had been routinely tossed.   It wasn’t much more than two centuries after the pieces had been discarded, but nobody had any idea what they were from or for.

Then a complete whatever-it-is was unearthed at the James Geddy house, and contemporaneous documents finally revealed the answer. These odd pieces of pottery were known as “martin-pots” and hung beneath the eaves of houses to attract nesting birds.  The birds, in turn, would feed their fledglings with the omnipresent Virginia coastal mosquitoes and other bugs, providing themselves with dinner and the colonists with natural pest control service.

Eighty years after the baffling question first arose, you can Google “Colonial bird bottles” and get nearly five million hits.  Of course, mosquitoes are still biting in the Tidewater, too.


4 Responses

  1. And we actually acquired one of these when we took the girls to DC & Williamsburg 18 years ago — it’s still in one piece AND hanging up, not in a box in storage!

  2. Who is teaching the critical thinking skills needed to manage this morass of data?

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