The Roman Philosopher Seneca worried about information overload nearly 2,000 years before it was cool. “What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in a whole lifetime?” he wondered. In 1685, the French scholar Adrien Baillet warned that the continuing “multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion” could prompt the kind of collapse that befell Seneca’s civilization, leading to Visigoth-style barbarism. In Too Big to Know, a book on our current age of unlimited data, author David Weinberger observes that those long-ago Cassandras now seem like whiners, “drowning facedown in puddles of information.”
Today, the smartphone in your pocket gives you easy access to billions of times as much information as was held in all the libraries on earth in Seneca’s day. You can find out in real time what’s happening with Ukraine, your high school friends or the price of soybean futures. You’re a swipe away from knowing the best way to get somewhere, the best temperature to grill burgers or the best deal on a new laptop. You can track the progress of any commercial flight, the crime in your city or the path of Orion across the night sky. You can look up Baillet, who died in 1706, and get 174,000 results in 0.4 seconds.
We’re living in a golden age of answers. And it’s awesome.
At any moment, any schlub can call upon the accumulated wisdom of humankind to settle a bar bet, translate any document into any language or, as the schlub writing this article once did, diagnose a woozy Boston terrier with a severe case of ate-the-dog-sitter’s-marijuana in time to get its stomach pumped. We can now monitor our home electricity use when we’re not home, access our personal genetic codes to learn our risk factors, check who’s given how much money to our politicians and figure out when it’s likely to stop raining.
Of course, information is not knowledge or wisdom, and data can mislead. The Internet’s lack of filters or referees, while liberating, has helped birthers, truthers, antivaccinators and climate- change deniers increase their numbers. The profusion of online medical advice that saved my weed-eating dog can also make a headache sound like a brain tumor. Even the true information at our fingertips can be dumb and distracting, like Kardashian trivia and other click bait that invades our brainspace through cyberspace.
Privacy can also be a problem in a digital world where everything you’ve clicked, liked, posted and favorited online can potentially be used to sell things to you, evaluate you, embarrass you or oppress you. Your digital footprints tend to be permanent, unless you leave them on Snapchat, and your friends are not the only ones who know that you just checked in somewhere on Facebook. These days, your iPhone, your E-ZPass, even your digital thermostat can also provide information to others that you might prefer to keep to yourself.
But revolutions always create collateral damage. Wikipedia killed the encyclopedia. Apps killed maps. Nobody buys classified ads in printed newspapers now that Craigslist is free and searchable. The democratization of information is particularly threatening to middlemen and gatekeepers. Who needs a travel agent when there’s Kayak and Priceline? How long can real estate agents and stockbrokers survive when buyers and sellers are linking up online?
Things do get lost in this ocean of info. We no longer bother to remember stuff we can easily look up. GPS killed the fun of bumbling around a new city. We spend too much time reconnecting on Facebook with that kid we barely knew in summer camp and not enough time connecting with real friends in real life. The environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote a book called The Age of Missing Information in 1992, bemoaning how our bombardment with televised stimuli drowned out the subtle call of the wild. He says the data revolution, with its sophisticated climate models and social-media organizing tools, has leveled the playing field against fossil-fuel giants–but at a cost. “The world inside the screen can become more real than the world outside,” McKibben emailed before trekking off the grid to New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness. “The degree of our experience that’s intermediated is off the charts.”
Still, spoilers, pop-up ads, Internet hoaxes and other inconveniences of the answers age are small prices to pay for instant access to infinite information. It’s fundamentally convenient that we no longer need to carry maps, compasses, calendars, address books, calculators or watches now that our phones perform their functions through the magic of ones and zeros. Photo albums, music collections and video libraries–as well as newspapers, magazines and books–no longer need to occupy physical space either.
Now everything we do–every online purchase, e-prescription and tweet–adds to the digital tsunami known as Big Data. That can sound ominous, but Big Data is producing better information, not just more information, about our economy, our health and everything else, because we have better tools for slicing and dicing data, for searching, sifting and sorting through the barrage of keystrokes. The world’s computing power is expanding 10,000% every decade; algorithms can draw conclusions from e-prescription data before doctors could ever notice a pattern. If The Graduate were filmed in 2014, the guy giving career advice would probably recommend data management, not plastics. The answers business is the future.
In this issue, we’ve tried to use the new tools and data sets at our disposal to ask and answer questions that seemed important (When will Congress reach gender parity?), as well as fun (Where exactly should I sit to catch a foul ball?). We ended up answering some questions we didn’t know we had (Why don’t we get heart cancer?). We also used data to investigate the issues that define our times and tell us who we are.
But what’s most exciting about our age of answers is its potential to change the quality of our lives. A transit app that lets you know when the next bus is coming is not just a convenience. It’s also a transformative urban-planning tool that can convert car commuters into regular transit users, because it removes the uncertainty and should-I-wait-or-find-a-Plan-B anxiety of information-free bus travel. The beauty of digital activity-trackers like Fitbit is not just that they let you know how many calories you’re burning. It’s also that knowing how many calories you’re burning encourages you to change your behavior and burn more calories. Your favorite taco truck’s Twitter feed is the same mechanism that makes all manner of new mobile businesses possible and probable.
Our new wikiworld is nothing if not efficient. We can use the networked knowledge of the web to find the lowest prices for anything, squeezing inefficiency out of markets. Online sharing services like Uber and Airbnb make underutilized vehicles and apartments more productive; there’s nothing less efficient than a taxi circling a block searching for fares or an apartment with nobody in it. We are living through the Great Optimization, where we can program home appliances to optimize energy usage, where Amazon and Netflix can mine our purchasing histories and those of similar customers to recommend other books and movies we might like, where crowdsourcing services like Chowhound and Waze harness the power of the hive mind to prevent us from wasting money on bad restaurants or wasting time in bad traffic. More doctors inputting clinical data on digital tablets rather than analog clipboards will lead to better health care, because more data leads to better answers.
At least, it usually does. A friend recently showed me how his Internet-optimized dating apps have fine-tuned his social life, sending him multiple prospects a day that he can accept or reject with a swipe. I couldn’t stop marveling at how efficient it seemed, so much better than small talk with strangers at bars and awkward parties, until it occurred to me that no dating app would have paired me with my wife. We met at an awkward party. I had never dated anyone like her; she had never dated anyone like me. No algorithm could have predicted our great optimization.
If there’s a cost to the age of answers, it’s probably our loss of serendipity. We’ve honed our daily news feeds to send us stuff that already interests us, so we’re less likely to stumble upon a quirky story on page B-13. We gravitate toward online cocoons of like-minded people who don’t challenge our assumptions. Optimizing isn’t always optimal.
But for the most part, answers are good to know. You just have to ask the right questions.
FOR EVEN MORE ANSWERS, GO TO time.com/answers
This appears in the September 08, 2014 issue of TIME.