The Information Age is over.
What does that mean? And what do we do, now?
For most of history, information has been a scarce, precious resource. But as new "information technologies" have emerged, we progressed from information scarcity to information abundance. Now, as we continue our way through the 21st century, we've gone beyond abundance—we've now reached the point of information over-abundance. We now have information saturation.
In a world with too much information, the key skill will become the ability to filter it. To distill, to discern, to curate. To find signal within the never-ending waves of noise. Widespread access to Artificial Intelligence tools was the tipping point that finalized this shift and these tools can also be used to navigate it—but I believe this transition will push us toward values that the Information Age originally took away: communicating with a degree of context and connection that requires us to accept some constraints.
But whatever the solution, this shift will transform the way we all interact with the world, so please: pay attention.
What does this look like?
Information saturation affects us everywhere. Just look around and you'll see it emerging in every aspect of your life.
What to buy
One example is in the daily experience of shopping. We've gone from buying things at a single store from a single vendor, to shopping in malls with dozens of stores, to shopping online with a seemingly infinite number of stores. In the past, finding a store that carried an item we wanted was a challenge. Now, we face the exact opposite challenge: Out of all the different sellers available, how do we choose just one?
Even if we're just to limit our search to Amazon, the Everything Store, how do we choose from dozens of pages of apparently identical items? Especially when each item has hundreds or thousands of positive reviews.
What to watch
When it comes to media consumption, we've gone from movies being only available in theaters, to being available to buy for home viewing, to being able to rent movies, to eventually being able to stream them. Now, there are so many options available for what to watch, you could easily spend a free evening scrolling through Netflix, Hulu, Prime, MAX, Peacock, Disney+, and Apple TV+, trying to pick something, rather than actually watching anything.
What to read
Libraries are one of my all-time favorite inventions, and the collection of worthwhile information in the form of books has been happening for centuries. But at this point, UNESCO estimates that 2.2 Million books are published every year. As long as you read 6,000+ books per day, every day, you can keep up! Okay, admittedly, no one even wants to read every book that's published. In fact, we probably have the reverse problem: Gallup says the average American currently reads 20% fewer books than they did, just 5 years ago. But we still have the entire back catalog of humanity's writings available at our fingertips, and more is being added every day.
And while reading every book may not be expected of us, keeping up with current events sure is. Amidst the never-ending now of news media, there's a constant stream of articles and commentary that seeks—or even demands—our attention.
But these trends have been emerging for decades. In some ways, we're just talking about the ever-accelerating cadence of technology and simply describing the daily life experience created by information abundance. The Paradox of Choice described how additional options don't actually benefit us—and that was published 20 years ago.
So, what's changed? 2 things:
Part 1 - Social Media & the Late Information Age
On top of all of the other information being created, social media is an inherently democratized format, where everyone is a publisher. Although computer technology allowed for greater information gathering and transmission, this new approach to distributing information allows anyone, anywhere to share with everyone.
Part 2 - Artificial Intelligence & the End of the Information Age
While social media allowed for more rapid distribution of ideas, the final straw that has pushed us over the edge is the arrival and mainstream distribution of Generative Artificial Intelligence. While computers and the Internet allowed for massive content creation, A.I. tools like ChatGPT make it possible to create an entire new book with the press of a button.
This is the point of complete information saturation. As of today, any single person with an Internet connection and access to one of these A.I. models can easily create more content in an hour than you or I could read in a day. It will only get worse.
What's going on?
The interesting thing about these emerging trends is that they're revealing a deep cultural belief at the heart of our society: An obsession with knowledge and information as an unmitigated good.
Just the idea that knowledge might not be good is hard to get our minds around.
Yes, misinformation is bad and disinformation is dangerous... but the idea that information itself could be a negative? Weird.
But I'm not the first one to suggest this.
Walter Benjamin & "The Storyteller"
In the 1930s, cultural critic Walter Benjamin observed that the world's growing obsession with information threatens human connection and more nuanced forms of communication—particularly storytelling:
If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs.
Benjamin argues that our fixation on impersonal, self-contained, urgent communication has replaced the traditional forms of storytelling, which are (by way of contrast) rooted in personal experience. This obsession with information makes us believe that the message is all that matters, rather than considering where or from whom it's coming.
Neil Postman & "Informing Ourselves to Death"
Later in the 20th century, author and educator Neil Postman argued that this was a problem. Here's how he framed it in one particular talk:
The message [of computers] is that through more and more information, more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems.
His suggestions seem even more credible, given the eery extent to which he predicted the promises of technological innovation that we're experiencing now, 30 years later:
As things stand now, the geniuses of computer technology … will give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to self-knowledge. They will give us instantaneous global communication, and tell us this is the way to mutual understanding. They will give us Virtual Reality and tell us this is the answer to spiritual poverty. But that is only the way of the technician, the fact-mongerer, the information junkie, and the technological idiot.
Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us: “All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
The Information-Action Fallacy
If you don't trust mid-century cultural theorists, another way to consider this situation is through the lens of behavioral science.
Here's what I mean: We tend to believe that, given enough information, someone who is doing something wrong will automatically change their behavior. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. But the idea is common enough to have a specific name: the Information-Action Fallacy.
One example of this comes from personal finance: Millions of people in the US alone are in deep debt, and the intuitive solution for many is financial education. So I was shocked to discover a few years ago that a meta-analysis of 200 studies found that financial literacy programs account for only 0.1% of the variance in behavior.
Information is a tempting idol, but considering these factors shows that it doesn't live up to our hopes. And even if it had, in the past... the modern environment is threatening to overwhelm us.
If you acknowledge the premise, the question becomes: What do you do about this?
For better or worse, there's not a single answer. A transition of this scale can't be navigated with "this one easy trick." Your situation will depend on your context and your objectives.
For me, though, I am starting to see some key themes emerge:
|Information is abundant
|Information is overabundant
|Wanting More (High quantity)
|Wanting Better (High quality)
|Pursuit of limitlessness
|Choosing specific constraints
|AI as a concept
|AI as an unavoidable reality
|Knowledge is power
|Discernment is power
|Value in creating information
|Value in curating information
|Focus on Speed of Communication
|Focus on Depth of Communication
|Elevation of individual
|Necessity of connection
|An age of answers
|An age of questions
In the Information Age, information became abundant. The sheer quantity of information available was appealing, so creating and distributing new information was a key priority for both individuals and businesses. With the assumption that knowledge is power came the belief that the collection of facts was still valuable. The concept of Artificial Intelligence was an interesting, futuristic concept, and we used technology to separate ourselves. Overall, this age was characterized by rapid growth and discovery, which made it an age of answers.
In the Post-Information Age, information has become overabundant. With so much available, the quality of information becomes much more important, so discernment is power and curation is the core skill. Artificial Intelligence was a key turning point, with critical thinking becoming more important than it’s ever been. As technology continues to develop, we will see a greater need for connection and trustworthy human relationships. As change continues to accelerate, this age will be characterized by the ability to ask the right questions.
What do you think? Does this description ring true for you? I'd love to hear your perspective—you can shoot me an email at hi [at] jwby [dot] co.
Let's explore this new age, together.
PS - If you're a marketer or growth-focused founder (like me), I'm starting a newsletter to explore how to grow a company in this new landscape. I'd love for you to check it out: The Age of Intelligence.