Several studies have found that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of people searching for information on the Web failed to find what they were looking for. People still have anxiety about how to assimilate a body of knowledge that is expanding by the nanosecond. Misinformation and mayhem are rampant. Information anxiety is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand.
Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. It happens when information doesn’t tell us what we want to know. Our relationship to information isn’t the only source of information anxiety. We are also made anxious by the fact that other people often control our access to information.
We are dependent on those who design information, on the news editors and producers who decide what news we will receive, and by decision-makers in the public and private sector who can restrict the flow of information. We are also made anxious by other people’s expectations of what we should know, be they company presidents, peers, or even parents.
My family used to discuss current events around the dinner table. My father would ask us questions. If we answered one incorrectly, we had to leave the table and go find the correct answer. I experienced my first case of information anxiety, had my first intimations that information would be a driving force in my life, and swore I’d learn ways to find it – faster.
Almost everyone suffers from information anxiety to some degree. We read without comprehending, see without perceiving, hear without listening. It can be experienced as moments of frustration with a manual that refuses to divulge the secret to operating a digital video camera, or struggling with a map that bears no relation to reality.
It can happen at a cocktail party when someone mentions the name Allan Bloom and the only person you know by that name is your dentist. Information anxiety is a chronic malaise, a pervasive fear that we are about to be overwhelmed by the very material we need to master in order to function in this world.
We are bombarded with material from the media, from colleagues, from cocktail party conversation, all of which is delivered in the form of what we have been taught to think of as information. We are like a thirsty person who has been condemned to use a thimble to drink from a fire hydrant. The sheer volume of available information and the manner in which it is often delivered render much of it useless to us.