I received an invitation to attend a webinar.  The topic was: “Design of Stiffened Slabs on Grade on Shrink-Swell Soils –  New Approach”.  I was concerned about this invitation because I wasn’t quite up to speed on the old approach. 

The webinar invitation was one of many I regularly receive.  The topics vary but the overall theme is the same:  there is a lot to learn, and the amount of knowledge seems to be increasing.  While more and more knowledge is being created and disseminated, no one is in charge of determining when we’ve learned enough.  For bridge engineers, the issue is graphically illustrated by the thickness of the AASHTO bridge design code.  Back in the day, the code fit in a modest loose-leaf binder.  More recently, just the annual updates of the new LRFD code are thicker than that.  The full current code can no longer fit in one binder, and two extra thick binders are now issued.  Keeping in mind that paper will soon be a thing of the past, a CD is provided for the tens of thousands of pages.  It’s all good and necessary stuff, but it’s a lot and the amount is increasing. 

This may be an issue of evolution.  There is only so much information the human brain can learn and manage.  Humankind’s store of knowledge has recently expanded so quickly and to such an extent that evolutionary mechanisms probably can’t keep pace.  The idea behind natural selection is that the fittest adaptations would be favored for procreation of subsequent generations.  So, in the distant past, our ancestors who were best able to avoid being eaten by hyenas lived to procreate and provide these positive traits for future generations. 

But what is the argument for natural selection related to the task of adapting to AASHTO?  Are the bridge engineers who best master the voluminous new code found to be the most suitable mates?  When I was dating I offered this argument at bars, with limited (actually, no) success.

Computers may fill in the evolutionary gap.  My brain has not yet evolved to handle the tens of thousands of details that impact analysis and design.  But I can type things in Google, and in seconds I have access to almost the entire stored knowledge of man.  Google is so smart, that it now even guesses at what I want as I type a query.  Usually the guesses are pretty good. 

An article in the Economist suggests three ways to address TMI:

1.  Develop new technology to filter the information and help clear the fog.  For example, routines can be programmed to automatically store and clear your EMAILs.  Some of this happens automatically now with junk filters. 

2.  Develop self-discipline.  Just as you can avoid getting fat by not overeating, you can avoid information overload by limiting your partake of information.  That so many people are obese suggests a limitation with this approach.

3.  Attend new management seminars which provide coaching on how not to get overloaded.  The seminars are classes which seem to offer new information to be learned, so this may be contradictory.

An argument that there is too much information is specious, I know.  Knowledge is a good thing.  In my case, and probably for all of us, mortality ultimately addresses any concerns for a cap on lifelong learning. Until then, as the database of things to learn expands exponentially, it is increasingly important to be increasingly selective.   You can’t know everything, but you can prioritize learning and know enough.