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Volume 1, Issue 2      February 1994


The Coming of Information Overload

The Information Highway Summit held in January at UCLA succeeded in bringing much attention to plans to create a national standard structure by which electronic information will be able to spread. You can tell the level of success by the number of commercials that make use of it. One commercial shows how everyone's life will be enhanced by the new national information highway while another says essentially the same thing in a more humorous way. Well, without drifting too far away from the point I am trying to make, I'd like to point out that these commercials are basically wrong -- they are promising too much. They have to though, otherwise people wouldn't be interested.

Instead, the real revolution in making information available in electronic form happened several years ago, but it has been an unofficial secret of people in the know - universities, certain companies, etc. It has only been recently that people noticed that something called the Internet exists and how much really is available on it. The proposed information highway is more of a consolidating attempt than a real revolution. This is okay, though. It is a sign of the maturity of this field when more and more people become interested in it and are active participants in it. In a way, this is a much greater dramatic revolution than any commercial can really convey.

The best historical analogy that anybody can think of is that of the printing press and its effect on making information available several fold. This revolution is something usually glossed over in history classes, since its effects are too impossibly enormous and widespread to trace directly back to the printing press because after a while books were a common part of any educated individual's landscape. This revolution was impressive not so much for itself, but what it made possible simply by occurring. Information travelled around much smore quickly and more people could exchange ideas (though sometimes only one-way). So, roughly speaking, things happened a lot sooner than likely they otherwise would have. Our electronic information services will undoubtedly cause something similar to happen, but we won't notice it until a long time after it has happened because it will be so subtle as to not be noticed.

However, now we have to deal with the problem of how to let the average American in on this, because no matter how amazing a technological marvel the information highway turns out to be its true test will be in how many people will be able to use it. It is no secret that presently a relatively small percentage of people actually know how to get into and make use of these online services, which is obviously not doing the rest very much good. What hasn't been talked about much is this: we have the tools by which we can make available enormous amounts of information in a timely fashion, but we ourselves are no better equipped to handle it. Or to put it more simply, more and more people will be feeling the impact of "information overload." People that do research regularly now, whether it is a part of their job or on their own or for classes, will undoubtedly be familiar with this. How do you make your way through a ton of texts, magazine articles, FAQs (a new animal altogether -- the Frequently Asked Questions document), or, heaven forbid, actual raw data?! The Information Highway, if successful, will pile on a lot more electronic versions of information on top of the pile you already have dominating your desk.

As a final, parting note, I would just like to put this is in perspective from the point of view of this newsletter. The trials and tribulation of the Information Highway, whatever they turn out to be, will not be of special interest to NSPRI in particular, but important in ways that will be so to everybody. Since much of NSPRI depends on the timely analysis of information, it is important for us to perhaps spend some time working out how we can deal with this. To restate the question asked earlier, how do you make your way through a pile of information that is only going to expand? This is the question I'd like to pose, rhetorically of course -- I would undoubtedly get far too many responses now than I have time to deal with. -- Peter Spangler.

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National Solar Power Research Institute, Inc., © 1994.
Editor - Mark Ciotola; Assoc. Editor - A. To; Publisher - Peter Spangler. Contributing writers: Abdoulaye Yansane, Jean Wu, Ri-Xi Liang, Zilian Tang. Officers: Ri-Gui Dalia Liang, Ann Marie Cheng and Mark Ciotola. Subscriptions: 50 reimbursement per issue domestic / 23 plus postage foreign. A matching donation is suggested, but optional. Limited number of free copies available. Mail subscriptions and correspondence to the National Solar Power Research Institute, Inc., 601 Van Ness Avenue Suite E3248, San Francisco, CA 94102. V1 I2.