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Human Bandwidth and Knowledge   (May 2005)

Please read "Flattening the Knowledge Curve: The "Googling" Effect" for background.

The ability to quickly assess the value and potential impact of new information--that is, to easily place it in the appropriate historical, technical and intellectual contexts--is now described by the techno-geek term "bandwidth."

John F. Kennedy possessed a famously wide bandwidth, as does Bill Gates. A critical aspect of bandwidth is the ability to sort the important from the non-important. Thus, a small article on page A-7 is often of greater import than the front page stories (finger found in bowl of chili, etc.), and only a piece of the article on page A-7 might be worthy of inclusion in a readers' internal knowledge structure.

Continuing the theme of yesterday's post: what does this mean in a world of largely unedited or fact-checked information being served up by search engines on the Web? Clearly, a person with a high bandwidth and deep knowledge can quickly sort through the first 50 listings and recognize those sources which are reputable, and gather an understanding of the topic by "reading between the lines." In other words, the high-bandwidth person has a great store of pre-existing knowledge which can be applied to new information.

The poorly educated or inexperienced person, on the other hand, has no way to sort the grain from the chaff. They could slog through the first 50 listings on a search and have little in the way of "real" (that is, contextual) knowledge of the subject. If they'd read a brief compilation of works by recognized authorities (preferably covering a spectrum of opinions), their understanding would at least have a solid base on which to build.

This is of course what a university education is supposed to provide--a base of rigorous skepticism and general knowledge on which to build a greater understanding of complex problems.

But search engines don't pull up such compilations; they pull up whatever sites score highest on factors such as the number of site links, the frequency of visitors, etc. The net result (no pun intended) is that the Web is a great resource for those already at the top of the knowledge food chain, but a confusing and perhaps distracting resource for those with less knowledge and bandwidth.

There are other problems with the Web as a source of knowledge. It's difficult to read more than a few pages comfortably on a computer screen, especially if the webpage designer has foolishly placed a tiny white font against a black background. So the temptation is to simply stop reading after a few pages, and move on to another source. Without an ability to read an entire essay, it's impossible to learn anything of substance.

As a result, the "knowledge" gained is in reality more an illusion of knowledge than an actual working knowledge. This leads to an illusory confidence in one's understanding, and to an oversimplified view of complex problems. This illusion of knowledge could have profoundly unsettling consequences both for the nation and the individual.

If you doubt this, consider how much people actually know about nutrition and the foods they consume. Despite all the vast amount of information on the Web, people are clearly uninformed about basic nutrition. If they were informed, would they choose so poorly? I think not. Rich people tend to be leaner not just because they can afford better food or personal trainers, but because they know better than to eat the junk inaccurately labeled "food" in the American diet.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

I would be honored if you linked this wEssay to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.

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