Too Much Information: Four Recent Books

December 08th, 2007 | Category: Essays, Reviews

In his 1995 book, Being Digital (Vintage), Nicholas Negroponte drew a sharp and important distinction between bits and atoms, bits being the smallest workable unit of the digital world, and atoms being their closest analog (no pun intended) in the physical world. In the meantime, this distinction has become more and more important as our world becomes increasingly digital or reliant on digital technologies.

The Long TailAs an over-simplified example, shelf space in a regular “bricks and mortar” bookstore is limited, but online it isn’t. In order to pay its rent and stay in business, a physical bookstore has to carry books that sell at a faster pace than an online store, which can afford to carry books that sell less often. The latter is called “the long tail,” and it’s how Amazon was able to stake its claim as “The World’s Largest Bookstore” and eventually to expand into every other product line one can put in a box or an inbox. When it comes to purely digital artifacts and products (e.g., digital file sharing, music downloads, ebooks, etc.), the power law on which the long tail is based isn’t truncated (as it is eventually in the Amazon example, and sooner in the traditional bookstore example).

The Long Tail (from Chris Anderson’s site)

Chris Anderson admittedly didn’t invent the idea (Jeff Bezos for one has been making millions with it for years), but no one else has covered it like he has in his book. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2006) is the concept shot from every angle, through every available lens. The idea is that blockbusters, hits, best sellers form “the short head” of the graph, and the niche items, cult phenomenon, lesser sellers form “the long tail.” Our culture is moving down the tail (i.e., it has become “niche-driven” as opposed to hit-driven) and off the shelf (online as opposed to in the store). Most retail stores only have room to carry items in the short head, while online “etailers” can carry items further down the tail. And when it comes to digital products, shelves are no longer an obstacle, in more ways than one.

Everything is MiscellaneousWhen products move from shelves to databases, the way they can be organized changes. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books, 2007) is David Weinberger’s take on Web 2.0’s tags and folksonomies, set in contrast to objects in physical space (bits vs atoms). “Orders of order” he calls them. Items on shelves are limited by the rules of the physical world. Items in a database are not. The former can be filed in one category, on one shelf, in one place (the first order of order). The latter can be searched, browsed, alphabetized, tagged — all at the same time (the third order of order). These orders of order also apply to encyclopedic information — Wikipedia’s bits as opposed to Encyclopedia Britannica’s atoms — and the way it is created.

InfotopiaIn Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (Oxford, 2006), Cass R. Sunstein continues some of the work he did in Why Societies Need Dissent regarding deliberation, group polarization, and emergent knowledge. The most obvious and most successful example is Wikipedia. Whereas mindless mobs wait at the bottom of many collaborative slippery slopes (see a sharp antithesis to Wikipedia at Urban Dictionary), Wikipedia is frighteningly accurate. My friend and colleague Tim Mitchell proposed a great test of Wikipedia’s success: If you doubt the site’s aggregate knowledge, check its information against something you do know, as opposed to something you don’t. Sunstein’s book goes a long way to explaining the ins and outs of why collaborative filtering might provide the best method for knowing things.

Bit LiteracyMark Hurst’s Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload (Good Experience, 2007) approaches the infoglut from more of a self-help angle, proposing an ambitious plan for getting things done and getting things organized in the digital deluge. It’s not quite the panacea it purports to be, but useful ideas abound. Finding signal in the noise — especially in the noise of your own email, photos, files, to-do lists – is what bit literacy is all about.

As bandwidth increases, Negroponte’s observation from over a decade ago is finally showing its impact. The distinction between bits and atoms is an important one, and perhaps more important than we previously realized, whether we’re trying to find something or just find something out.

Further Posting:


  • Ryan said:

    This is a topic that I try to remind myself of everyday. Negroponte’s book changed my life. I know it sounds cheesy, but it really did. I’m currently putting some thinking around helping one of our new clients. They happen to sell computers and a lot of them. They don’t sell bits at all, but I think they should. Looking at that simple idea has really expanded in to a lot of new thinking around their business.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Negroponte’s Being Digital was certainly wrong about some things, but it nailed a few others, the bits-vs-atoms distinction being one of the main ones.

    Richard Saul Wurman was also fairly prescient regarding “information anxiety,” but as the web continues to evolve, so do its advantages and obstacles — for all of us, collectively and indiviually.

  • Tim Mitchell said:

    I know the article is done, but part of my point about Wikipedia is the “ask the audience” effect (widely understandable to most folks). On “Millionaire,” it’s shown time after time that a large group of non-experts are usually more accurate than a single expert.

    Moving up the complexity scale, there was the “Kasparov v. The World” chess match in 1999. Over 50,000 people from 75 countries voted on their moves. While Kasparov won, it took 62 moves — and that’s a loooong game in Grandmaster level competition. (Largely, the players can see the outcome well in advance, and one player resigns or a draw is agreed upon.)

    And what did Kasparov have to say about it? “It is the greatest game in the history of chess. The sheer number of ideas, the complexity, and the contribution it has made to chess make it the most important game ever played.” Hardly faint praise.

    Finally, there are the Iowa markets. You’re probably already familiar with them, but if not, it’s an easy Google.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Hey, Tim:

    Cass R. Sunstein talks about the power of the crowd in both Infotopia and Why Societies Need Dissent, breaking down the reasons that a group of non-experts is more likely to zoom in on the correct answer (as in your “Millionaire” example) than a single expert is. It’s an interesting concept and its inner workings are often quite counterintuitive.

    Have you read Out of Control by Kevin Kelly? A lot of these same ideas (e.g., hiveminds, the emergent behavior thereof, a flock’s ability to react faster than a single bird of the same size, etc.) are discussed in there. It’s a great book that’s well-worth a read (or two).

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