Is information technology pushing us over the edge?

Have you seen the video that was presented to Sony BMG Music Entertainment executives on May 4, 2008 in Rome entitled, “Did You Know?” If you haven’t, not surprisingly, you can find it on YouTube.


Among the many statistics cited in this compelling and unsettling video, is the claim that the information contained in one week’s worth of The New York Times, is greater than the amount of information the average person in the 18th century was likely to come across — in their lifetime.

Now if that isn’t a staggering statistic, there are more. Other purported statistics included an estimate that four exabytes of unique information would be created in one year — which was more information than had been generated in the previous 5000 years. 5000 years?!

And that by the time a student today turns 38, s/he will have had between 10 and 14 jobs. And so it goes.
When I was doing research for my master’s thesis in 1995-96, I made use of a card catalogue system in the university library and had to order CD-ROMs by mail, from universities in different parts of the world.

Now, all I do — to get started at least — is get on the Internet, enter a few key-words into a search engine like Google, and thousands, sometimes millions, of results appear. Instantaneously. “Did You Know” that in 2006, 2.7 billion searches were done per month using Google? And that by 2008, the number was in excess of 31 billion searches?

So is all of this information a good thing? I’m not so sure anymore.

According to a study conducted in the U.S. and recently reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry, “. . . the use of antidepressant drugs in the United States doubled between 1996 and 2005 . . . and more than 164 million prescriptions were written in 2008.”

These aren’t Canadian statistics, but we probably aren’t too far off. Is “information overload” a contributing factor? How can it not be? We are bombarded with information during every waking minute of every day. Radio, television, print media, Internet, wireless devices.

The only place I still don’t get consistent reception for my iPhone and my BlackBerry (and trust me, I’m not looking too hard) is my cottage in Quebec. While that would probably send some of my colleagues into hysterics rather than to the dock for a lounge or a swim, the really scary thing is that I checked my BlackBerry while perched on the back of a camel riding through the desert in Jordan, just to see of course. Guess what? It worked.

If I had been practising law in 1995-96, I’m not so sure that clients would have expected me to provide them with opinions on points of law within a matter of hours. When my grandfather was practising law, confirming instructions took longer than that.

So are we still doing a thorough job? Were we then without so much information at our fingertips? And seriously, were we that litigious back then? Or do we just know about it now, because the statistics on litigation in Canada are available via the information highway?

Apparently there are no more child abductions today than there were in the 1970s when I was growing up. But, thanks to the Internet, parents feel better about having their kids stay indoors playing video games, than they do about letting them play unsupervised with the neighbourhood kids in the park.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but do you let your 10-year-old play unsupervised in the neighbourhood? Or do you secretly shadow him/her, hoping you won’t get caught?

Some years ago, I went to Queen’s University to hear Jacques Derrida lecture. In his dissertation he spoke about our evolution into what he called, a “techno-mediatic society.” Even though his lecture has long left my imperfect memory, I wondered at the time whether the transmogrification of society into one that was totally consumed by technology and the transmission of information was inevitable, and how society would cope with the results.

We don’t really know how to write anymore. We self-diagnose by searching the Internet for answers. We live in alternate realities and play MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) without ever coming in contact with a live person. We meet our mates on Internet dating sites. We keep up with our friends through Facebook. And the list goes on.

You know what though? In spite of it all, I love technology; it saved my father’s life.

Sarah Dale-Harris is a lawyer in the intellectual property, technology & interactive entertainment groups at Davis LLP. Her practice focuses on the creation, development, management, commercialization, and enforcement of technology and life sciences-based portfolios and related intellectual property rights. Sarah can be reached at 416-365-3522 or at sdale-harris@davis.ca. Her column will be appearing each month on canadianlawyermag.com.

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