Chapter One: Limits to Information
On an average weekday the New York Times contains more information
than any contemporary of Shakespeare's would have acquired in a lifetime.
- anonymous (and ubiquitous)
Every year, better methods are being devised to quantify information and
distill it into quadrillions of atomistic packets of data.
- Bill Gates
By 2047 ... all information about physical objects, including humans,
buildings, processes and organizations, will be online. This is both
desirable and inevitable.
- Gordon Bell and Jim Gray
This is the datafication of shared knowledge.
- Tom Phillips, Deja News 
It now seems a curiously innocent time, though not that long ago, when the
lack of information appeared to be one of society's fundamental problems.
Theorists talked about humanity's "bounded rationality" and the
difficulty of making decisions in conditions of limited or imperfect
information. Chronic information shortages threatened work, education,
research, innovation, and economic decision making-whether at the level of
government policy, business strategy, or household shopping. The one thing we
all apparently needed was more information.
So it's not surprising that infoenthusiasts exult in the simple volume of
information that technology now makes available. They count the bits, bytes,
and packets enthusiastically. They cheer the disaggregation of knowledge into
data (and provide a new word-datafication-to describe it). As the lumps break
down and the bits pile up, words like quadrillion, terabyte, and megaflop
have become the measure of value.
Despite the cheers, however, for many people famine has quickly turned to
glut. Concern about access to information has given way to concern about
coping with the amounts to which we do have access. The Internet is rightly
championed as a major information resource. Yet a little time in the nether
regions of the Web can make you feel like the SETI researchers at the
University of California, Berkeley, searching through an unstoppable flood of
meaningless information from outer space for signs of intelligent life. 
With the information spigot barely turned on-the effect has seemed more
like breaching a dam than turning a tap- controlling the flow has quickly
become the critical issue. Where once there seemed too little to swim in, now
it's hard to stay afloat. The "third wave" has rapidly grown into a
tsunami.  Faced by cheery enthusiasts, many less
optimistic people resemble the poor swimmer in Stevie Smith's poem, lamenting
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving, but drowning.
Stevie Smith, "Not Waving But Drowning," from Collected
Poems of Stevie Smith. Copyright © 1972 by Stevie Smith.
Yet still raw information by the quadrillion seems to fascinate.
Could Less Be More?
Of course, it's easy to get foolishly romantic about the pleasures of the
"simpler" times. Few people really want to abandon information
technology. Hours spent in a bank line, when the ATM in the supermarket can do
the job in seconds, have little charm. Lose your papers in a less-developed
country and trudge, as locals must do all the time, from line to line, from
form to form, from office to office and you quickly realize that life without
information technology, like life without modern sanitation, may seem simpler
and even more "authentic," but for those who have to live it, it is
not necessarily easier or more pleasant.
Even those people who continue to resist computers, faxes, e-mail, personal
digital assistants, let alone the Internet and the World Wide Web, can hardly
avoid taking advantage of the embedded microchips and invisible processors
that make phones easier to use, cars safer to drive, appliances more reliable,
utilities more predictable, toys and games more enjoyable, and the trains run
on time. Though any of these technologies can undoubtedly be infuriating, most
people who complain want improvements, not to go back to life without them. 
Nonetheless, there is little reason for complacency. Information technology
has been wonderfully successful in many ways. But those successes have
extended its ambition without necessarily broadening its outlook. Information
is still the tool for all tasks. Consequently, living and working in the midst
of information resources like the Internet and the World Wide Web can resemble
watching a firefighter attempt to extinguish a fire with napalm. If your Web
page is hard to understand, link to another. If a "help" system gets
overburdened, add a "help on using help." If your answer isn't here,
then click on through another 1,000 pages. Problems with information? Add
Life at Xerox has made us sensitive to this sort of trap. As the old flip
cards that provided instructions on copiers became increasingly difficult to
navigate, it was once suggested that a second set be added to explain the
first set. No doubt, had this happened, there would have been a third a few
years later, then a fourth, and soon a whole laundry line of cards explaining
The power and speed of information technology can make this trap both hard
to see and hard to escape. When information burdens start to loom, many of the
standard responses fall into a category we call "Moore's Law"
solutions. The law, an important one, is named after Gordon Moore, one of the
founders of the chip maker Intel. He predicted that the computer power
available on a chip would approximately double every eighteen months. This law
has held up for the past decade and looks like it will continue to do so for
the next.  (It's this law that can make it hard to buy
a computer. Whenever you buy, you always know that within eighteen months the
same capabilities will be available at half the price.)
But while the law is insightful, Moore's Law solutions are usually less so.
They take it on faith that more power will somehow solve the very problems
that they have helped to create. Time alone, such solutions seem to say, with
the inevitable cycles of the Law, will solve the problem. More information,
better processing, improved data mining, faster connections, wider bandwidth,
stronger cryptography-these are the answers. Instead of thinking hard, we are
encouraged simply to "embrace dumb power." 
More power may be helpful. To the same degree, it is likely to be more
problematic, too. So as information technology tunnels deeper and deeper into
everyday life, it's time to think not simply in terms of the next quadrillion
packets or the next megaflop of processing power, but to look instead to
things that lie beyond information
"Chapter One: Limits to Information," In: The Social Life of
Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
First Monday, volume 5, number 4 (April 2000),