The effect of information explosion and information half-life

Information is exploding at a phenomenal rate.

In his 1982 book, Critical Path, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years, and by 1982 it was  doubling every 12-13 months. IBM now estimates that by 2020 human knowledge will be doubling every 12 hours. In The coming knowledge tsunami, Marc Rosenberg showed this diagrammatically as below.

What does this explosion in information look like in reality? Visual Capitalist shows us what happens in an Internet Minute in 2018.

But although information itself is growing exponentially, the half-life of knowledge (or facts) is decreasing. Wikipedia explains that

“The half-life of knowledge or half-life of facts is the amount of time that has to elapse before half of the knowledge or facts in a particular area is superseded or shown to be untrue.”

In other words, as Samuel Arbesman explains in his book, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date …

“Over time, one group of facts replaces another. As our tools and knowledge become more advanced, we can discover more — sometimes new things that contradict what we thought we knew, sometimes nuances about old things. Sometimes we discover a whole area that we didn’t know about.”

And, in Half Life: The Decay of Knowledge and What to Do About It, Shane Parrish provides a good example.

“While figures for the half-lives of most knowledge-based careers are hard to find, we do know the half-life of an engineering career. A century ago, it would take 35 years for half of what an engineer learned when earning their degree to be disproved or replaced. By the 1960s, that time span shrank to a mere decade … Modern estimates place the half-life of an engineering degree at between 2.5 and 5 years.”

According to some the half-life of skills is also diminishing fast, with some skills having only an 18-month window. Knowledge and skills now have such a short shelf-life that it is frequently said that a college degree will be out of date before the loan is paid off. 

Shane Parrish shows that the decreasing half-life of knowledge means that lifelong learning is imperative by using the example of the decreasing half-life of an engineering degree.

“In 1966 paper entitled “The Dollars and Sense of Continuing Education,” Thomas Jones calculated the effort that would be required for an engineer to stay up to date, assuming a 10-year half-life. According to Jones, an engineer would need to devote at least five hours per week, 48 weeks a year, to stay up to date with new advancements. A typical degree requires about 4800 hours of work. Within 10 years, the information learned during 2400 of those hours would be obsolete. The five-hour figure does not include the time necessary to revise forgotten information that is still relevant. A 40-year career as an engineer would require 9600 hours of independent studyKeep in mind that Jones made his calculations in the 1960s Modern estimates place the half-life of an engineering degree at between 2.5 and 5 years, requiring between 10 and 20 hours of study per week.”

He therefore comes to the conclusion:

“The faster the pace of knowledge change, the more valuable the skill of learning becomes.”

Some educational institutions recognise this, as the author of The impact of the half-life of facts on education explains.

“Medicine acknowledges the problem of the change of knowledge. Doctors are taught that much of what they learn will be obsolete in a few years of graduation, and they must always devote time to the latest changes in their field.

It’s not just about constantly learning new facts, but having the resources to understand how those facts will change and be on top of the information needed to function in the world.”

But, as Shane Parrish points out

“The problem is that we rarely consider the half-life of information. Many people assume that whatever they learned in school remains true years or decades later.”

The implications for the world of work are immense: individuals will need to be constantly replacing out-of-date knowledge with new knowledge in a continuous process of unlearning and learning.

There is no longer such a thing as a job for life

Last updated: December 10, 2018 at 8:21 am

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