Friday, January 16, 2009

Information overload IS filter failure

Aristotle David Crotty has weighed in to the ongoing debate around Clay Shirky's suggestion that information overload is really filter failure. If you haven't been keeping up, David provides a handy overview of the argument:
So there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure, right? Which is to say the normal case of modern life is information overload for all educated members of society.
David feels that Shirky's argument doesn't apply to scientists, because they are in some way a special case. Now I respect David enormously, but in this case, he's wrong. Just because the volume of scientific literature published has expanded does not make scientists immune to Shirky's reasoning. So have the tools available to scientists.

There are two crises in scientific publishing at the present time. One is the open content debate. The other is the degree of information literacy required to call yourself a professional (in any field). Conventional wisdom holds that Aristotle was the last person to know everything (Neill & Ridley 1995 The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern. McGraw Hill). That probably wasn't true - Aristotle was a victim of Rumsfeld's Syndrome - he didn't know what he didn't know. Certainly, every scientist since Aristotle has suffered from information overload - even if they didn't know it. So if we can't know everything, what do we have to do?


And that's why information literacy matters. But the filters required to be an effective scientist cannot be encompassed by any single tool or service. The filter you need is the network that tells you what you don't know. And that's why today we are launching the Beyond Google information literacy network at the University of Leicester.