Managing Information in the "Information Age"

Todd Washburn |

There are people who just crave information.  I’m one of them.  Left to my own devices, I can and sometimes do, find myself on the journey to the end of the Internet.  It is, of course, like trying to find the end of a rainbow- fun for a while, then frustrating, and finally impossible.  It’s one of the consequences, I guess, of living in the Information Age.
Things sure have changed since I was my teenage son’s age.  Obviously there was a lot of information in that day and age too (Stone Age, I’m told).  But it could be difficult to get.  It was “locked up” in books, magazines, and other publications.  Some might be on microfiche (remember that).  You needed card catalogs, reference librarians and interlibrary loans to unlock much of it.  And even then- you probably missed something that would have been interesting or helpful.  You had to think about where to get the information and what constituted “good” information because it took real effort to get it.
Fast-forward to today. I’ve watched my habits over the last week or so.  With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on Florida, instead of watching the Weather Channel, the national network news, or looking for a newspaper, I found I could look for local TV stations in the areas I was concerned about and watch their live broadcasts online.  In making dinner recently I was missing an ingredient.  Rather than dig through my cookbooks to find an appropriate substitute, a very quick online search found multiple solutions.  In looking at someone’s investment portfolio, there was something I wasn’t familiar with.  So off to my online Morningstar database and a couple other resources, and I had a better understanding of what I was looking at.   All this is to say- it sure is nice to have all this information available.
Of course, what can pass as “information” sometimes isn’t.  The presidential debate the other night made that clear.  While the real-time “fact checking” can be interesting and even helpful in putting comments in the proper context, things like the online polls afterwards can be more “mis-information” than information.  We still need to understand the source of information (who are the fact-checkers associated with?), the process to assemble that information (who was polled and how) and even the possible biases of the site posting the information. To learn this might mean a search for other information- and so on and so on.  You can find “information” (I think of information as something that is factually correct) that supports or contradicts just about anything- and obviously it can’t all be correct.  Some people come to financial planners like me for help in screening all the information they’re bombarded with.  So much of it is noise or short-term issues, but it’s hard to know which is which if you don’t deal with that on a regular basis.  It’s a little like me talking to my tech consultant about something I’ve read and am either interested in or concerned about.  Quite often there’s a side to the story I didn’t know that puts it all in the proper perspective.
I love the Information Age.  Bring it on.  But we need to be careful that searching for information online doesn’t replace thinking about the information we’re exposed to.  Does it make sense?  Does it allow me to draw the conclusions that I am- or am I stretching it? Business leaders say one of the traits they are really looking for in workers today is the ability to engage in “critical thinking.”  Even with all the information that’s available at our fingertips, we still need to think.  It seems, at times, we forget that.