I subscribe to several hundred blogs with Bloglines. Most days, this results in several hundred feeds to read. I also subscribe to a series of listservs – some generating a large amount of daily posts, others only periodic posts. To further convolute my information sources, I also subscribe to many newsletters. I imagine my information consumption habits are not that unique. In the end, I encounter hundreds (if not thousands) of different sources of information each day.
I’m fascinated by how we have changed our relationship with information (and still kept the sense of expectation we apply to how we used to handle information). When I first started with this whole “online thing”, getting 5 emails a day was considered busy. Now, it’s several hundred. In order to function with the increased volume, I (like everyone else) have had to reduce the amount of time I spend with each email, so that I’m able to process all of the information. This reality is exacerbated by webfeeds and aggregators.
What happens when we change how we interact with information? We “ramp up” our processing habits. Instead of reading, we skim. Instead of exploring and responding to each item, we try and link it to existing understanding. We move (in regards to most information we encounter) from specific to general thinking…from deep to shallow thinking. Shallow thinking, in this sense, isn’t as negative as its connotations. Shallow thinking (perhaps I need a better phrase) involves exploring many different sources of information without focusing too heavily on one source. Aggregating at this level helps us to stay informed across broad disciplines. So much of education intends to provide “deep learning”. Often, however, “shallow learning is desired” (i.e. we want to know of a concept, but we don’t have time or interest to explore it deeply). All we need at this stage is simply the understanding (awareness?) that it exists. Often, learning is simply about opening a door…
As an example, today while skimming my Bloglines feeds, I formed a general awareness of lawsuits against Apple, developments with Google Base, blood tests for determining anxiety, etc. I’ve grown in my skills at rapid reading and aggregating information. I’ve also learned to quickly recognize information that is important for deeper exploration. The bulk of this work still happens in my head, but I’m encountering more software tools that assist the process. I don’t think it’s too ambitious to say that we are still very much at the beginning of a new era of learning – one defined by confusion in the abundance of information…and the accelerated need fro determining which information is valuable, and how the pieces fit together.