Our information diets are killing us

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 16, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling

I have just finished marking a bunch of assignments. Not surprising the topic was narrative techniques in knowledge management. The students are masters level and I have to say I was depressed by what I received. The majority of the students were relying on Google and wikipedia to support their claims and arguments. The only journal articles referred to where the ones I made available in the shared online space.

What’s happening here? I was reading Jay Cross’ blog and he mentioned Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability: What we find changes who we become. What a fabulous title. I agree, we definitely become what we find, just like we become what we find to eat. Our information diets are becoming junk food because we are unwilling to put the effort in finding something more satisfying than what you can get from a browser in one or two clicks. Or is it simply a case that most people don’t know how to find the journals online or can’t get access?

Of course there are at least two sides to this issue (probably many more actually). In the case of our students are we setting the right standards for what we expect? If the the standards are lax, then merely satisficing will remain unsatisfying.

Jay has added ‘findability’ to his list of essential 21st Century skills. I agree. The problem we face right at this moment is like 5-10 years ago when fast food was entirely junk food. Slowly but surely people started to demand healthy eating options from these same fast food outlets. Today new healthy fast food joints have appeared and new choices added to the menu. In the meantime will we be creating an information obescity epidemic? Where are the fast and healthy outlets on the web today?

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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Matt Moore says:

    Shawn – So part of the issue with junk food is that of abundance. We are genetically hardwired for scarcity of fat/sugar/etc. So when it came along in a massive trashy rush, we went a bit nuts.
    Our education system has been hardwired for information scarcity. Getting access to academic literature outside of universities is expensive & difficult [You want a 10 page article? That’ll be US$25]. By the time students get into university, google & wikipedia have become embedded in their lives. “Jamie’s School Dinners” didn’t just throw salads at kids or tut when they reached for the chips but tried to engage them with food on a whole different level. Maybe we have to do the same with information?
    The other point to make is that most academic papers are very, very unengaging. Students do have to get to grips with the literature to master their area of study. But perhaps academics have to learn to write better also?

  2. Shawn says:

    Good points Matt. Getting academics to write more engagingly is a big problem. I was working with a group or natural resource managers and they identify the ability to find readable and authoritative papers as an important need. I wrote about this issue in a newsletter (https://www.anecdote.com.au/archives/2007/02/anecdote_newsle.html). Robert Cialdini found that the most compelling science writing is written in the form of a mystery story.

  3. Heidi says:

    Interesting topic, Shawn. My immediate thoughts are: how old are the students? What is their level of work experience? What is their motivation for studying?
    A couple of years ago I returned to full time study after a break of 13 years. I was giddy with excitement at the information opportunities offered by the internet. Need some more information for an assignment? No problem. Go to Google, Dogpile or Wikipedia and suddenly all sorts of papers and web articles would flood my computer screen. The best thing was that I was exposed to an abundance of information almost instantly. How exciting! No longer was there a need for me to hop on my bicycle and pedal across to one of the university libraries to sift through shelves of books, or to fight over photocopying journal articles with fellow students. The information scarcity was huge in those days. Hundreds of students chasing a few golden, hard copy articles. Gosh I thought, technology these days is wonderful! What a great equalizer! Any person can access the same information – no matter which country they were based in. If only things had been like this during my BA days, I mused. No need to go out, get cold and fight my fellow students in order to research my assignments. Instead I could sit at home with a cup of tea and do it all from the comfort of my office.
    However, a few weeks later I felt very flat. The heady excitement had disappeared and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction. I realised that, like junk food, the information I was pulling off the web was cheap, plentiful and unsatisfying. I ended up wasting a lot of time following up dead ends, and sifting through articles which, at best, skimmed the surface of the topic I was researching, and at worst were irrelevant. The articles which I really needed to access weren’t readily available and could only be accessed through subscriptions and $. $ which I didn’t have. Maybe technology wasn’t the equalizer I thought it might be.
    One day, sitting in a underfunded college library and sifting through more computer screens of poor quality information, I had a revelation. Hadn’t I heard about the State Library of NSW? Wasn’t it a 20 minute train ride away from college? Before I knew it I was off on a quest. My level of excitement increased as I realized that I was once again out on the hunt. Having had to make the effort to go and physically hunt for information I was very determined that I was going to get my hands on some good stuff. It added a level of excitement and motivation to my research adventures. And what a find! The library had shelves of the latest relevant text books, computers with access to all sorts of online databases which it had subscribed to, databases which contained in depth research papers, as well as free wireless internet access. This was what I had been looking for!
    Needless to say I spent the rest of my study year sitting in the library, accessing and trawling through papers. I felt like I was on a treasure hunt. And it was satisfying. The internet had a part to play but so did subscription databases and plain old fashioned books. My tutors commented a few times on the fact that I did research and access good quality information. I also shared my secret with my fellow students. A couple were motivated to make the effort and go and hunt for information. Others thought it was too time consuming and preferred to make do with what they could get from the internet. To them the thought of not instantly accessing information and having to make the physical effort to obtain it was too hard.
    I think my age had something to do with my motivation for researching beyond the internet. I think that the old clunky days of the push bike and fighting over journal articles helped me get over my need for an instant information fix and encouraged me to research more exhaustively.
    So to what degree is age a factor in the disappointing assignments you were marking?
    (A colleague told me recently how a lecturer at a Masters Course at the University of Western Sydney spent a significant part of the first lecture of the year talking about the style of English expected and how SMS language was not appropriate. On a Masters Course?!) To what degree did experience and time (or a scarcity of it) play in the level of research conducted? After all we do live in a ‘time poor’ society. Were the people on your course working in full time jobs and did they have families to look after? To what degree are people being efficient and playing the “assignment” game? Providing the basic level of what’s needed in order to pass and get the marks required? To what degree do we assume that people have research skills because they can use a Google search engine, whereas in fact they need more guidance on how to retrieve information beyond the realm of Google? All interesting points of speculation, but I suppose at the end of the day the only way to find out – discuss it with the students themselves. The answers could be quite surprising.
    P.S. Apologies for lack of paragraphs in this post. Haven’t quite worked out the technology yet!!

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