Information. Had enough lately?
by Dennis Bruce

"A weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in an entire lifetime in the 17th century." This is astonishing assertion is from Richard Saul Wurman's seminal book, Information Anxiety. Imagine what Wurman would say about information in the fat Sunday edition.

Living in what has been touted as the "Information Age", we've become cocky. We think we're so smart, so informed, so wise, compared to previous generations. Via the Internet, we have a world of information literally at our fingertips - more than we know what to do with. But, why, Wurman wants to know, with all this information, are we still so ignorant? There's a vast gap, in his view, between information and understanding, and that gap is the source of a great deal of anxiety. We know what we should know, but knowing that we don't know it, makes us anxious and neurotic.

I was thinking about this recently when I heard an announcer on CBC Radio call it, "the information station". Now, I'm a great fan of CBC radio but surely its job is not simply to provide information but to bridge the gap to understanding.

"If I were asked to say what is the worst thing about television news or radio news, I would say that it is just this: that there is no reason offered for why the information is there; no background: no connectedness to anything else; no point of view; no sense of what the audience is supposed to do with the information," says Neil Postman, professor of communication at NYU, in his book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. Postman doesn't mean by this that the media should tell us what to think but what we need to know in order to think.

"To say that we live in an unprecedented age of information," says Postman, "is merely to say that we have available more statements about the world than we have ever had. This means, among other things, that we have more erroneous statements than we ever had."

In a recent study for a large Toronto hospital, physicians told me that patients, with access to the Internet, come to them with more information about what ails them than ever before. The trouble is that not all the information is reliable. Much of it is misinformation that often leads to overreaction and acute anxiety. Sometimes, doctors have difficulty disabusing patients of erroneous ideas and helping them gain a more rational perspective. (No surprise. Entire political movements have been founded on misinformation.)

Moderating focus groups for a living, I'm acutely aware that my job is not merely to record information, or simply what people say, but what they mean by what they say, in other words, to bridge the gap between information and understanding. The observer who, scribbling notes behind the one-way mirror, takes what focus group participants say literally, may be led badly astray. Stand too close to a pointillist painting and all you see are unrelated daubs of colour.

Some years ago, the Subaru account in the U.S., was won, after a very public pitch, by the Weiden and Kennedy agency, much-celebrated for putting Nike on the map with spectacular, award-winning advertising. With bated breath, the ad industry waited to see what the agency would do with Subaru. In due course, the campaign appeared, a beautifully crafted series of ads and commercials driven (pardon the pun) by the somewhat prosaic line, "What to Drive." The campaign won a slew of awards in prestigious shows. However, it failed to halt diminishing Subaru sales and before long the agency suffered the humiliation of losing the business.

Shortly after, I was in Subaru of America headquarters in New Jersey meeting with the research director. The agency, he said, had made a fatal mistake in taking the focus groups too literally. When participants maintained that imagery was bunkum and that a car was no more than a functional way of getting from A to B, the agency people thought they had discovered a brilliant insight. They fell into the trap of listening to what people said rather than what they meant. They confused information with understanding. In my view, the moderator was chiefly at fault for just reporting on what people said and not interpreting the responses more sensitively.

Enough. How do we cope with the information glut? First, start by recognizing that information is not understanding. Second, don't jump to conclusions. (Don't even walk too quickly.) Take a moment to stand back and survey the context in which the information is communicated. Third, try to discern patterns that give it meaning and lead to understanding.

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