In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.

Genesis 7:11

As the Torah tells us, at the dawn of human history, the flood swept the world. Most people, except for Noah and his family, drowned in that flood. Today, we too are drowning in a flood of a different kind—the informational flood.

To put the current flood in perspective, consider this: according to one estimate in 2003, between the beginning of human civilization and the spread of computers, humanity generated cumulatively about 12 exabytes (12×1018 bytes) of data. However, in 2002 alone, we generated 5 exabytes of data. According to another estimate, from the start of 2006 through the end of 2010, the quantity of digital data in existence increased from 161 exabytes to 988 exabytes. To quote a leading scholar on the philosophy of information, Luciano Floridi:

“Exaflood” is a neologism that has been coined to qualify this tsunami of bytes that is submerging the world. Of course, hundreds of millions of computing machines are constantly employed to keep afloat and navigate through such an exaflood. All the previous numbers will continue growing steadily for the foreseeable future, not least because computers are among the greatest sources of further exabytes. Thanks to them, we are quickly approaching the age of the zettabyte (1,000[1] exabytes).[2]

Floridi published these words more than ten years ago, in 2010. Already in 2011, 1.2 zettabytes of data were created. Global yearly internet traffic alone reached one zettabyte (approximately, 1000 exabytes) in 2016. We have entered the age of the “zettaflood,” and we are drowning in information.

Generally, information overload is not good. However, the deluge of information creates a variety of problems. The biblical metaphor of the Mabul (“flood”) helps to see the specifics.

Describing the primordial flood, the Torah says, “all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” Classical commentators explain that the water came both from below (“great deep”) and from above (“windows of heaven”). Using this metaphor, we can describe the zettaflood as a deluge of information coming from “above” and from “below.” The information coming from “above” is good information that can form the foundation of future knowledge. The information coming from “below” is bad data—a mixture of misinformation and disinformation. Let us look at the perils of both types of information flooding us today.

The primary example of “good”—that is, legitimate—information is scientific data published daily in research papers[3] appearing in various scientific journals.[4] On the one hand, this data represents the outcome of hundreds of thousands of research projects worldwide, moving the progress of science and technology forward. This is undoubtedly very good for the future of humanity. However, the downside of this onslaught of information is the inability of any researcher to absorb it. This leads to a high degree of specialization, forcing researchers to stay focused on very narrow areas of research, hoping to keep up with information in their respective narrow areas. Such an extreme level of specialization is often counterproductive—researchers risk losing sight of the forest for the trees. There is no more room for generalists like Isaac Newton or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. With this super-high level of specialization, the big picture is often lost, as is the cross-pollination of ideas between fields. This specialization does not bode well for the future of science. Great progress cannot be made without seeing the big picture.

This super-high specialization is particularly dangerous in medicine. It is not enough that physicians used to specialize in particular organs or limbs. Today, they specialize in a particular disease or even a particular variant of a particular disease. Often, the patient, the whole being, is lost in this myopic view. The ancient Indian parable about the blind men and an elephant comes to mind.[5]

While the scientific information flooding us from “above” is mostly good, the information flooding us from “below” has no redeeming qualities—this is misinformation or disinformation. According to the Pew Research Center, around half of U.S. adults (53%, to be exact) said they “often” or “sometimes” use social media to get their news.[6] Social media is a haven for misinformation and disinformation. While misinformation is data that happens to be incorrect, disinformation is intentional misinformation. The devastating effect of mis- and disinformation has never been felt more powerfully than today. It spans political conspiracy theories as well as misinformation about the use of masks and vaccination during the COVID-19 pandemic. While political disinformation caused an unprecedented crisis in American democracy in recent years, pandemic-related misinformation caused hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have been avoided. And that’s just in the United States.

Social media also puts their users in echo chambers so that each group is fed only the news they want to see—news from rightwing sources for conservative users and leftwing sources for liberal users. The political debate is lost in the process. Nobody hears the other point of view. This accelerates the political polarization tearing at the fabric of American society. If left unchecked, eventually this growing rift could lead to a civil war.

We are all drowning in the zettaflood. What is the solution? Come to the ark. According to Chasidic interpretation, the word tevah means not only “ark” but also “word.” Thus, to come into the ark could be interpreted metaphorically as coming into the “word”— the Torah word, that is. The lesson is simple: to avoid drowning in the zettaflood, one should spend less time surfing social media and more time studying the timeless words of the Torah.

However, coming into the ark does not mean cutting off all sources of information and burying your head in the sand. Recall that Noah’s ark had an opening on top to let the light through. As the Torah says:

A light shalt thou make to the ark.

Genesis 6:16

The word tsohar used for “light” in this verse is used only once in the Torah. It means something that shines. Some translate this word as a window, others as a luminous gem. It also mean bright noon light. The simple meaning is that tsohar was a skylight that let the light in. However, Rashi, quoting the midrash[7], says that a luminous gem or precious stone emitted the light. Perhaps, one can also say that the precious stone was positioned at the opening of the window (to close the opening, preventing the rain from coming into the ark), through which light came into the ark. Taking this metaphorically, the precious stone (which by definition must be scarce) teaches us that our time, as well as our attention, is scarce and precious. Therefore, one must be extremely careful what information one lets into one’s mind. It should be pure, true, unbiased, and worthwhile. This is the only way that we, like Noah, can survive the zettaflood: by stepping into the ark.


Endnotes:

[1] More exactly, a zettabyte is 1024 exabytes, which is roughly equivalent to the data that can be stored on one billion DVDs.

[2] Luciano Floridi, Information: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 6. The numbers cited above are from this source as well.

[3] According to data from the Scopus database, from 2008 to 2018 the number of published research articles grew from 1.8 million to 2.6 million.

[4] Several estimates suggest that there are about 30,000 scientific journals in the world today.

[5] One of the oldest written sources of this parable is found in Udana 6.4, c. 500 BCE.

[6] Sarah Perez, “Study finds around one-third of Americans regularly get their news from Facebook,” Techcrunch.com, https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/12/study-finds-around-one-third-of-americans-regularly-get-their-news-from-facebook/ (accessed October 3, 2021).

[7] Genesis Rabba 31:11, Targum Yonatan on Genesis 6:16. See also  Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b, Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 23.

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