in Tech

Ignore Useless Information?

While reading “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” recently, I came across the following passage, uttered by the detective himself:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.”

I’ve seen this sentiment pop up elsewhere – the idea that you should try to ignore information that you regard as useless. (Clay Johnson’s Information Diet being a prime example) While I am in agreement that one should take care to regulate the volume and quality of information that they take in, I do not agree with Sherlock’s ultimatum. There’s simply no way that you can know which pieces of information will be useful and which will not. Especially for those of us whose jobs and lives are not centered around hard science.

It’s not even perfect for Holmes as a private investigator, despite him having a defined line between knowledge that is useful to him and those that is not. As Watson observes, he has an encyclopedic knowledge about criminal history, forsenics, and disguises, but knows nothing about literature, philosophy, or politics. Everyone can live as they please, but don’t you think you are missing out on life if you avoid books altogether and never get around to the ‘big’ questions that govern our very existence? There could feasibly be a crime yet to be committed in reality that some author had already put on paper, or a political theory that could help explain a criminal’s motivations. By pre-deciding which pieces (or entire  disciplines) are useful and which are not, Sherlock (and we) are missing out on a vast amount of data that is possibly useful, or just plain interesting.

Often is the case where I will hear of something in passing, and spend a half hour looking up its details on Wikipedia. Such information about historical figures or psychology theories are seldom ‘useful’ in my life, per se, but often times it has strengthened my understanding of similar applicable knowledge, or at the least provided a great cocktail story (ex: Heck, you could categorize the entirety of sites like Now I Know or Today I Learned as useless , but there are some darned interesting nuggets of information in there. They may not help me get my job done, but I like a life with those types of info in them better than one without.

That said, it’s true that the vast majority of information out there has no bearing on your life and that taking it in in any fashion is a waste of your brain processing power. Especially in these days, where we have a veritable fire hose of information being blasted at our faces from everywhere from screens of all kinds. And given that there are documented negative effects on of information overload on cognition, one has to be selective in the information you take in.

How, then, to decide what you want to let into your brain (and thus your life)? I’d  argue that you should let it in only things that are A) interesting to you personally, B) useful towards a current or future project. I  don’t want to know  who were the champions of the 2008 baseball season unless it’s a hobby – pub trivia is the definition of not useful.

The best way to test this is to ask yourself the question “What am I going to do with this information?” immediately before reading. Be merciful with the nuggets that could  aid you, but ruthless with the info that you know isn’t helpful (cough*breaking news*cough). In this manner, you don’t have to starve yourself of information but  stay conscious of what you are taking in.

Sherlock’s method also cuts out entirely the moments of synergistic serendipity when you see parallels between two completely different areas of thought. This method comprises half of innovation, along with technological advancements – people taking existing idea A and pairing it with existing idea B, which nobody thought could work together. (Like flip flops with embedded bottle openers)

Sherlock may be efficient, but he’s not innovative outside of his chemistry lab. Is that really how you want to think?