Writing in a 1965, at a time when the most powerful computers were the size of a single-car garage, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore prognosticated that the electronics industry would grow at an exponential rate. Specifically, his formula predicted that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit would double every two years. The effect of this is that the speed, memory and performance of a computer that you bought two years ago would be about half as powerful as the best new model.
While this is not a natural law of physics, it has held more or less true for more than 40 years, and when the technology will plateau is anybody’s guess.
There’s another “law” that, for some reason, I’ve never been able to forget. Ironically, this law is a near homonym of the other: “Mooers’ Law,” named after MIT scientist Calvin Mooers in 1959. This law postulates that, “An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.”
It’s an application of the principle of least effort.
Far from being mere technological trivia, I have always found that, together, Moore’s law and Mooer’s law have some profound consequences for daily life in a networked society. First, from Moore’s Law, the essential corollary is that you can never catch up with technology.
Today’s state of the art gizmo is tomorrow’s museum piece. Furthermore, the pace seems to be accelerating and the quantity increasing. It is estimated that the total information density of the world doubled between 1900 and 1950, again between 1950 and 1975, again between 1975 and 1990, and is currently doubling every 18 months. Information is like dark matter: you can’t see it, but it permeates the universe and every time we calculate it, we find more. That’s a cosmic amount of potential knowledge floating around out there.
Combine those facts with Mooer’s Law, and you get a second corollary: all answers are incomplete. People will not continue searching for information indefinitely, even though there is always more information available. This condition has been called an information explosion, which can lead to a malady called information anxiety. At The Evergreen State College, librarians encounter this affliction almost every day in students as well as faculty.
The remedy is information literacy, which is a core concept underlying secondary and undergraduate education, but which is also a hallmark of adult learning. I believe that the best way to learn its lessons is through life experience. Because of the growth and complexity in today’s information universe, it pays for an individual to develop a personalized information plan. Do you have a budget? A schedule? A “to do” list? Similarly, it pays in terms of saving time and frustration to have a plan that enables you to know when you need information, where to find it, and when to stop looking.
The components of an information plan include your tools (the means by which you access information), resources (the information that you find, in all formats), records (how you assess and organize the information), and decisions (how you use the information, and evaluate the results). Critical thinking skills are a must, as not all information sources are equally reliable (there’s no shortage of latter-day snake-oil salespersons on the Internet). Finally, it is advisable to have a backup plan, as many times you may not find what you are looking for. It isn’t a law, but if it was, it’d be mine: The easiest information to find is never the most useful information.
I’ve seen it time and again, where busy people seeking quick answers embark into uncharted regions of information space and wind up lost. Or, alternatively, they stop at the first way station that they encounter, whether hospitable or not. Next time that you need information of any kind, try plotting an incremental course to a desired destination, and see if you don’t save time and get better results by sticking with the strategy.
Gregg Sapp, a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors, is dean of library and media services at The Evergreen State College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.