People rarely send telegraphs anymore. But when they did it was an expensive proposition. It took a small pouch of gold dust and an operator skilled in Morse code to send a telegraph. Once sent,
there was no guarantee that the sparingly chosen words would be received. Each dash and dot was at the mercy of lineman who fought hostile indians and inhospitable conditions to keep the “lines of communication” open. In those days you didn’t bother sending a telegram unless you had something mighty important to say.
Fast-forward 100 years to the introduction of the Facsimile. Initially, only the largest organizations could afford expensive fax machines and usually there was a dedicated person to operate it.
The facsimile process was mysterious and the quality was questionable. Faxing was reserved for only the most critical and time sensitive material. Today, only a few years later, nearly everyone has
access to a fax machine. We send information around the globe, important or not, without thinking twice. Crucial documents such as contracts, schematics or medical diagnosis are transmitted with no
more effort,expense or urgency than when faxing a toddlers latest crayon masterpiece to grandma. There have been wonderful improvements to the methods of communication available to us as a result
of the information technology revolution.
Communications firepower at our disposal — personal computers, e-mail, the World Wide Web — allow us to generate and share information with astounding ease compared to what used to be possible
with pencil, paper and pony express. Even the “modern” typewriter is now just a romantic relic to all but a few lingering luddites.
I contend that the cost and effort required to communicate directly influences the value of information. And despite the decreasing expense of technology and the increasing ease with which we use
these high-tech global communication tools, the cost of useful information has actually increased.
For example, the raw quantity of data available at our fingertips is overwhelming. One has only to enter “basket weaving” in a web search engine to know we have entered an information glut. With
digital information — ones and zeros — there is literally no difference between the bit that launches Pathfinder to Mars than the bit that determines which screen saver pops up on my PC. We live
in an instant gratification culture coupled with an explosion of information. We have indiscriminate thirst for information no matter what form it takes or what it represents. It seems we may no
longer be able to differentiate between what is useful information and what useless. Have we convinced ourselves through our technical advances that we are in possession of knowledge as opposed to
merely having access to unlimited data?
Information does not become useful simply by witnessing its passage. One cannot learn to build a car by sitting on a freeway overpass watching traffic. To acquire knowledge, useful information must
be applied with discipline, study and hard work. How did Einstein conceive his theories without a computer? How did railroads, radios and rockets get designed with only a slide-rule and pencil? How
was is possible for large corporations to survive with out a spreadsheet program?
Imagine opening a dictionary to look up a word, only to become distracted by another word. Imagine then becoming distracted by even more words until eventually you forget why you went to the
dictionary in the first place. The ease with which we communicate and this proliferation of information has presented us with a very real danger. Actions that might otherwise move us forward may be
thwarted by useless information, without intellectual dividend, that cause us to diverge from our original intent.
In the age of the telegraph we knew the value of information and we knew how to work for knowledge. What can the majority of us do with the information we have? The usefulness of unlimited bits of
information should perhaps be judged in the long run not by its availability or the ease of acquiring it, but rather by when, how…or if…we put it to productive use.
© 1997 Kevin Craine, EDPP