Information-Rich and Attention Poor

There was a piece in the Globe & Mail on Saturday (12 September, 2009, page A21) entitled, “Information-rich and attention poor” by Peter Nicholson. Nicholson’s argument is that it has become very inexpensive to produce “knowledge” and correspondingly very much more expensive to analyze what is produced. In language strikingly reminiscent of Robert Pirsig, Nicholson talks about the extent to which speed of access to knowledge has replaced depth or analysis. He says:

“… When the effective shelf-life of a document (or any information product) shrinks, fewer resources will be invested in its creation. This is because the period during which the product is likely to be read or referred to is too short to repay a large allocation of scarce time and skill in its production. As a result, the “market” for depth is narrowing.

“There is also underway a shift of intellectual authority from producers of depth—the traditional expert—to the broader public.…”

As people professionally concerned with “depth” and analysis, we have to worry about this development. By “worry” I don’t mean just reflexively oppose, but to take stock of where we are, what we’re doing, what the consequences of doing what we do are and, what’s most important, ask ourselves, “could we do it better?”

Toby Brown, in a comment on Simon Fodden’s original post on Web 3.0, says:

“In Web 3.0 our data and systems will be discover[ed] insights (trends, fact relationships, etc.) lawyers may have missed or not completely captured.”

I want to see how this could happen. It may happen for the same reason that a good index (or footnotes offering cross-references) may broaden one’s understanding of the law examined in a text. My experience in producing an index is that, regardless of how competent an indexer may be, an author needs to review it and take great care that it is as rich as it can be—and I know each time that I can do it better. How will anyone have the time to deal with the deluge of stuff pouring from Canadian judges, legislators and others and prepare a good index for it all? If Nicholson is correct, who will pay for it?

After some 45 years of teaching and writing (and almost 50 years thinking) about law, I have come to the conclusion that the key to understanding any area is really epistemological; it’s how you know as much as what you know. We learn law in a linear fashion; we turn one page after another. We have to understand it in quite a different way. If I try to envisage how I understand the law of contracts—the only area I think that I understand—I’m in the centre of a huge sphere where, perhaps with the help of worm holes and white and black holes, what is at the back of the text book or at the end of the index headings is, in fact, intimately connected to what was at the front and the middle, and all the vice versas you can imagine. I fit the cases I read into this image and any single case I read may end up in two or more places as I work on a new edition of my text. This way of knowing seems to work for me but it’s hard, really hard, trying to communicate my understanding to others.

I think—I hope—that my understanding is rich and deep; it’s clearly only mine and others can and do disagree with me. How on earth will Web 3.0 deal with both this way of knowing and the other ways of knowing that exist? Wouldn’t we lose a lot if we had to settle on one?


  1. The current issue of Toronto Life has a short note by a Ryerson U lecturer pessimistic about today’s students’ abilities to concentrate over any length of time – and the lecturer is only 31! “Lament for the iGeneration” by Gregory Levey.

    Also, the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs last year held its annual conference on the new nature of knowledge. A debate relevant to Angela’s issues was entitled “citizen journalism or amateur hour” – with one of the debaters taking the view that most of what is informally produced is worthless. The debate is online at CPAC.

    Isn’t this all just admitting that McLuhan was right, that the medium is the message – and if TV didn’t destroy civilization as we knew it, perhaps the Internet will…

  2. This is both an old and a new story, surely — evidenced by Nicholson’s quoting Plato’s concern about the pernicious effects of writing. (I suspect that one way to gain some insight into what is now happening re technology and law is to explore the see-saw tussle over time between oral and written culture and aspects within it such as law.)

    And, in my view, this alarm at “too much information” shows that we have forgotten that we all have learned to walk around with our eyes narrowed and our ears nearly shuttered, because we are always and everywhere immersed in an infinite amount of information — William James’ “great blooming, buzzing confusion”. The zen thing, of course, is to open one’s eyes and ears and be present in this flow, at least some of the time. We will learn to filter out the seeming demands of technologically enhanced information, just as we have the “noise” of the city or the constant blare of nature. James, by the way, repays reading in this respect, because of his interest in attention and epistemology.

    As for the narrower matter, I’d be happier with the Nichcolson-Swan concern if I could get some hard evidence of it, rather than a string of alarmed assertions and some almost Aristotelian reasoning from Nicholson prefaced by “economics teaches that…,” which ought to give anyone pause. Pointing to WIkipedia is not persuasive. Can anyone show that there is today a relative (let alone corresponding) scarcity of books from which one might learn more deeply? And the pointers to Wikipedia would do well to read some of the contributions to that venture, because they might be surprised at the quality of what they would find.

    There are immense, tangible and valuable benefits to the near-zero cost of information transmission that must also be taken into account, whatever the felt or perceived harms of IT. The clearest non-law example might be Facebook (given that world-changing email is by now so accepted as to be beneath notice), revealing people’s immense appetite for connection. And in law the liberation of nations’ statutes and rulings from the pay-prison offers at least the prospect of giving true meaning to fiction of promulgation.

    But neither Angela nor Nicholson ends on an entirely grumpy note. Nicholson whips the thing around at the very end, and not in a “oh well, let’s make the best of it” kind of way:

    The hyperlinked and socially networked structure of the Internet may be making the metaphor of the Web as global “cyber-nervous system” into a reality – still primitive, but with potential for a far more integrated collective intelligence than we can imagine today. . .

    [There is a] generation gap in which masters of an established paradigm can only see the shortcomings, and not the potential, of the truly novel. . .

    And Angela, interestingly for me, in describing her “spherical” understanding comes close to outlining the conception I have of a new form of text (and now I mean textbook) that, thanks to the marvels of IT, is constructed somewhat like a helix, allowing a learner to proceed between levels of sophistication as the need and interest arises. But that’s another matter for another day.