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Sometimes it's best not to search

By Kaila Colbin

A woman I know needs heart surgery. "I was starting to come to terms with it, but then I looked up the procedure on Wikipedia," she says. "Now I'm all freaked out again."

Well, of course. This is a case where additional information doesn't offer additional comfort – quite the opposite. When it comes to surgery, most people benefit from the initial wave of knowledge, acquiring the ability to make informed decisions. The next wave, though, "freaks you out". I don't care how many people tell you it's routine; no amount of detail will ever make you happy about people poking around in your chest cavity.

Surgery isn't the only area where further information can be detrimental. Malcolm Gladwell, in his essay "Open Secrets", describes this phenomenon as the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. "Osama bin Laden's whereabouts are a puzzle. We can't find him because we don't have enough information... The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn't a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information, but that we have too much."

Sometimes things that seem simple can turn into mysteries the further you dig; after all, any coastline becomes infinitely long if you measure in enough detail. Yet our culture of total information availability has led us to believe that we need more research, more knowledge, more data.

We don't. What we need is better judgments and an improved ability to assess uncertainty. We need to refine our skill at making decisions, even though we know that, not only are we operating with incomplete information, but also there exists at our fingertips a resource that can provide us with an infinitude thereof. How can we possibly reach a conclusion when there are so many blue links yet unclicked?

The challenge of managing additional information is growing, of course, exponentially. Last week, Google announced that the tweet archive would now be searchable. While Twitter missives formerly vanished after a few days, we'll soon have access to all 10 billion of them.

The fact that we can now delve into thousands of tweets doesn't mean we'll know any more than we did before. Gladwell, referring to financial transactions, describes the challenge in trying to comprehend complexity through detail: "You can try to make financial transactions understandable by simplifying them, in which case you run the risk of smoothing over some potential risks, or you can try to disclose every potential pitfall, in which case you'll make the disclosure so unwieldy that no one will be able to understand it."

When faced with a mystery, we need more than data. We need comprehension. The next time one of your searches is frustrating you, ask yourself whether additional searching is likely to solve the problem – or whether you're just adding to the mystery.

Does more information help you make better decisions? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

Kaila Colbin blogs for The Web Genome Project, a movement to create a virtual topography of the World Wide Web. This article originally appeared on MediaPost.com

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