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Information Overload

During a recent program I mentioned that over 4,000 new books were published every day and that there had been more new information created in the past 30 years than in the previous 5,000. The accelerating pace of change and emerging data streams are converging to deluge even the most prolific reader. While new information is good, one must wonder if it really matters. And, if some of this information torrent matters, how does one determine what to discard and what to retain?

Valiantly attempting to keep pace with new information on the economy and to understand what exactly happened over the past four years, I recently elected Free Fall – America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy by Joseph Stiglitz (W.W. Norton, 2010) and All the Devils are Here – The Hidden History of the Financial Crises, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (Penguin Books, 2010). Certainly, there are hundreds of other books on the same or similar subjects, but Stiglitz and McLean are hard to beat.

The real issue comes from the volume of information and exceptional reporting found in both books. What is one to do with such information? Other than understand what occurred, there is also the tendency to get agitated over the stupidity, arrogance and avarice that fueled the recent (and subtly continuing) financial meltdown. If even 10 percent of the information is accurate, and I’m certain it is carefully annotated, we have been led onto a slippery slope that leads to a very dark place. The quest for power is only exceeded by the level of greed that underpins this country’s most celebrated and iconic financial and political institutions. For the common citizen and typical community, there are few options – at least not in the short term.  And none are without risk.

Most communities and families can hunker down, save more, pay down debt, and do without. But this is occurring in juxtaposition with extreme corporate earnings and Wall Street profits (and salaries) that exceed the levels of four year s ago. Though teetering on the brink of a second recession (or deeper continuation of the first one), politicians dither and joust while Wall Street wallows in enormous profits – all at the expense of those who have returned to savings as the best preparation for an uncertain future.

On other fronts, the new book, The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change, by Philip Conkling, Richard Alley and Wallace Broecker (MIT Press, 2011), provides exceptional reporting on climate change in Greenland – probably Earth’s best barometer for the future affects of global warming. Reported without pedantic environmental fervor or overstated science, the data offers a potent review of what we might expect IF. Of course, the IF pertains to mankind’s continuation down a path of rampant fossil fuel utilization, which, though slowing in the U.S., is rapidly increasing in most developing countries (India, China, and Brazil to name a few). This, and other similar books, would appear to offer admonitions similar to the old Fram oil filter commercial, in which the mechanic simply noted that, ‘You can pay me now or pay me later.” Of course, if you chose later, your costs for that new engine would be MUCH higher than an oil change and new filter.

European economics, global warming, the war in Afghanistan, escalating transportation costs, declining infrastructure, eroding pension funds, community security and economic doldrums are all subjects with enormous impact on America. Add these to education issues, crime rates, the number of people incarcerated in America, declining immunization rates, the rise of gang violence, growing air traffic incidents, and literally a hundred other issues and you can easily reach a threshold of despondence, apathy, fear, or anger. Perhaps a combination of all four better expresses the mood of those who comprise the OWS movement. 

Communities don’t have a choice…they must rally to the common good and to the futures they prefer. That takes insight, prescience and leadership. It will require uncommon courage to do what is right while others are raiding the cash box in D.C., but local control and local progress is the key to this country’s future, as it has always been. There is no time to lose…we need progress now, as we approach 2012. It promises to be another difficult year, with many variables out of our control. The key is to control what you can, understand what is uncontrollable and create a culture of integrated, shared resources that brings a new age of efficiency, quality and sustainability. This is the path of progress…more consolidation, more shared resources, more collaboration and a focus on the long view.

We have the skills and expertise. The question is, ‘Do we have the will, commitment and courage to lead?’  The next 10 years will not be like the previous 10 years.  Do current leaders understand this?  Again, the new norm will not mirror the old norm.  Times are a-changin’ and we need the wisdom to understand this and become architects of the next phase of American life.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

One Response

  1. Sifting through volumes of information is not just difficult, it’s most likely impossible. Too much data–not enough time. It is helpful to me to view information through personal values and beliefs. There’s a lot of garbage out there, and the gullible or uneducated may “buy in” or believe ideas that are false, misleading, or just plain stupid. It’s like I tell my kids: “Don’t believe everything you read, hear, or in our photoshop world, see.” View all things with a critical eye, and hold fast to values and principles that keep us “grounded, rooted, established, and settled.” Remain constant amidst changing world events, corrupt leaders, deceptive teachings, or uncertain futures.

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