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“All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.” ~Carl Sagan
Every second at the Large Hadron Collider, enough data is generated to fill more than 1,000 one-terabyte hard drives. At that rate it would take only 2.5 seconds to fill our brain’s total estimated memory storage capacity. Clearly, we are generating information much more rapidly than our brains have a chance of processing.
But as Carl Sagan sagely pointed out, not all bits of information are of equal value. This is one of the points I am trying to make as I return to teaching at the University of Alabama at Birmingham this fall, in my “Information Management for Government” class. The class could just as well be titled “Information Management for the Planet,” because the principles of information management have never been more global in scope and impact.
If all bits are not equal in value, then perhaps it is wise to begin by questioning the bits we’re already holding. How do you know what you think you know? The more we learn about how we filter and interpret our environment—not to mention the many inaccuracies and failings of both our observations and our memories—the more we come to question what we think we know, even based upon our own experience. Many of the evolutionary advantages that brought us this far also work against us in the modern world that we have created.
Also, we should ask: Which bits matter the most in the long run? Sure, those bits that might help you shed a few pounds, improve your job situation, or even attract a mate are important. But which bits will outlast us? And for those that do, will they make any difference? Will they improve the lives of those we leave behind? (Just one quick example: Why not recycle your organs by becoming an organ donor?)
Critical thinking is a topic I return to again and again, for I believe it is of vital importance. Critical thinking is one of the things we’re supposed to impart as part of the higher education process, but I do not believe we’re doing a very good job of it—or else a large number of college graduates have forgotten what they have been taught. How else do we explain the prevalence of pseudoscience, superstition, and politicized echo-chamber tribalism that is crippling meaningful action from our current Congress all the way down to Main Street USA?
As a science fiction fan, I find lots of useful examples in sci-fi books and movies. There’s just such a gem in a low-budget film from two folks who would later move on to much bigger and more famous projects—John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. The film is Dark Star, and it details the darkly comedic misadventures of a group of unstable astronauts 20 years into a deep-space mission to search out and destroy unstable planets. To do this, the crew utilizes computerized “smart bombs” whose intelligence is matched only by their snarkiness. Unfortunately, when a bomb run goes horribly awry, the crew is ill-equipped to deal with a bomb that is threatening to destroy the ship, despite their best attempts to teach it phenomenology.
Another topic to which I keep returning is the concept of Spaceship Earth. We are all travelers on a deep space mission, as it turns out—and our ship is indeed threatened by the misuse of some of our own technological advances. Hopefully we are smarter than our “smart bombs,” but we’ve got to learn some phenomenology ourselves—and stop thinking of ourselves as gods. Let there be light, indeed—but the light of knowledge and reason, not destructive force.
by Kyle Crider
Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Ecotech Institute or Education Corporation of America. Email Kyle at email@example.com