Information Anxiety

In 19/20/ 21  I blogged about World Population Day and about the way overpopulation and the prospects of global warming particularly affect the world’s largest cities.

The slide show I used was attributed to Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TED, and author of many useful books, including Information Anxiety (1990). Here is more on the topic.

“Information anxiety” refers to uneasiness we experience when we are overwhelmed by tremendous amounts of information and we feel we cannot cope with the huge gap between what we actually understand and what we think we should understand. Wurman reassures us  that most of our information anxiety problems are caused by failing to recognize what is useless,  what is useful, and what is really important. If we can sort this out, we can be clearer and more confident in our memories, our thinking, and our decisions.

Wurman encourages to recognize that everything falls into four categories:

  • Data is the  observations and objective facts that make up the raw materials used to create  useful information.
  • Information is nothing more (or less) than organized data.
  • Knowledge is simply organized information.  Knowledge is information that you have managed to integrate with everything else you already know.
  • Wisdom is fully-integrated knowledge that have been made even more useful by their relationships to other bits of knowledge. This is deeper than information… we are sure.

Then it helps to know how we personally need to manipulate and process this material. To do this Wurman offers a model based on an onion-like layering of information. He calls his model the Five Rings. According to Wurman, “the rings radiate out from the most personal information that is essential for our physical survival to the most abstract form of information that encompasses our personal myths, cultural development, and sociological perspective.”

  • Cultural Information is the outermost ring is our history, philosophy, and arts, i.e. attempts to understand our culture. This is where we combine information  from the other layers  to create our attitudes and our beliefs.
  • News Information refers to current events that have only a relatively minor impact on our daily lives, including  media information. While not impacting directly on our lives, news information influences us in  subtle ways, including our ideas about the world around us.
  • Reference Information includes textbooks, directories, encyclopedias, maps, dictionaries, and telephone books. We use reference information when we research a specific topic.
  • Conversational Information includes all the verbal and written exchanges of information that we have with people around us. Wurman identifies this form of information as a main source and the one we most easily ignore.  Information in this layer is also the most easily controllable and the one on which we should focus most intensely.
  • Internal Information refers to the collection of cerebral messages that enables our bodies to function. When we feel pain or hunger, for example, we are dealing with internal information. This is the type of information over which we have the least control but that affects us the most.

Besides being overwhelmed by needing to process too much information, I think that the media’s preoccupation with news about crime, war, disaster, and accident cause us needless fears about our personal safety. Yes, we must be prudent, on occasion even cautious, but too often we allow a creeping paranoia to cripple us.

The other day, in the local shopping mall, I thought about the roof collapse in Elliot Lake and found myself, quite involuntarily, looking up at the ceiling. I did not want to have coffee in the food court. Totally irrational, I know, but caused by an anxiety based on information that dominated the news here for weeks, information about which I could do nothing practical, nothing but worry.

The other source of information anxiety has to do with invasions of our privacy. Store clerks request my phone number or postal code and then greet my by name like an old friend. Every new visit to a clinic or medical specialist involves signing a document that permits them to share my most personal health information. And when I shop on-line, recommendations pop up for items I looked at weeks, or even months ago.There are surveillance cameras everywhere, including busy street corners where someone may “run” an amber light. Who knows what private information I am unwittingly leaking by participating in this blogging project?

More on both of these sources another time… for now take a look at this 1993 video by Duran Duran. Yes… nearly twenty years ago! That was before we were all “on-line”.  How much worse it is now!? I have up-loaded it twice… the first time with the lyrics.  I always have to strain to hear the words, but once I understand them, they become very clear and I wonder why I could not make them out the first time. Do watch the second posting also. The visual images of being caught, enmeshed, trapped, especially in the pliable plastic wrap and electric chair, are very powerful.



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4 Responses to Information Anxiety

  1. debbierodgers says:

    Oh. My. Talk about Information anxiety – there’s so much in this post I want to respond to, and so little time!

    I’ll start with my first thought about Wurman’s 4 categories for everything.
    I’m with Wurman for the first three steps, but I think the 4th one–wisdom–is the application of knowledge.

    That said, we’re in sensory overload today and many people have simply given up moving beyond turning the deluge in step 2 into knowledge. Many, many people are thus occupied at the ‘knowledge’ level.and don’t apply what they know to be true (which would be wise).

    I wish I had time to comment more. Great post!

  2. motleydragon says:

    I am glad you liked the article.

    Wurman has been one of my intellectual heroes since I first read him. He even uses the form of the book in a new way… interactive, start anywhere you want, use marginal gloss, balance anecdote with statistics. His style is very engaging. He changed the way I read and learn, and to a certain extent, the way I taught.

    We all seem to be living in a heightened state of fight or flight arousal, not unlike a mild case of post traumatic stress syndrome. Is it easier to cope with this living away from the city?

    What did you think of the Duran Duran video? I found it quite uncanny.

    More of all this another time.

    Tomorrow is another Friday the Thirteenth… I blogged about the motorcycle madness in Port Dover on April 13. Tomorrow they can fish and swim on that wonderful beach. It should be utterly mad!

  3. Personally, I find the stress level here a lot lower than in the city. We drive more slowly (80 kph & we generally observe the speed limit: deer & other animals can really damage a car going any faster); we have fewer other drivers to deal with so it\’s much easier to be polite to pedestrians and other drivers (and have others be polite to you); we take a minute with store clerks to really smile, maybe chat – make a connection Verybody at the post office knows who you are). Now, I must qualify this: our village has a population of 700. Even in Truro (pop. 10,000), although no competition for Hamilton, the attitude is not the same and the stress levels are higher.

    Because I don\’t watch television (no commercials), don\’t spend a lot of time reading magazines, don\’t see a billboard or a flashing neon sign for months on end, I\’m less at the mercy of advertising than I was in the city. (I don\’t spend a lot of time listening to radio anymore either, except for the CBC in the car, because we can\’t get any other stations.) Flyers come in a bundle once a week; I pull out the 2 or 3 I want and recycle the rest. I think we\’re spared from a lot of the bulk mail we used to get in the city either because we\’re not the target market out here, or because it\’s not as cost effective to deliver to 2,000 households on a rural route as it is to 2,000 h/h in a few square blocks of urban territory.

    I could go on listing dozens of ways – small & large – in which living here is different from our life in Hamilton, and which affect our information anxiety levels..

    Anyway, I must keep a look out for some of Wurman\’s works. And, yes, the Duran Duran song was uncanny. I do remember feeling that way when the song was big: professional journals, continuing ed, 2 daily newspapers & countless weekly/monthly subscriptions: too much, too much – and to think, no internet. If we\’d only known!

    Looking forward to your future posts.

    • motleydragon says:

      Your description of life “ex urbanis” makes it sound very enticing. I wonder whether that is true of all small towns, or whether there is a special Maritime social attitude. It would be interesting to hear from people who live in small towns in other parts of the country!

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