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The Information High (Opinion)

Addressing America’s addiction to data overload and consumption.

From the Chinese factories rolling out consumer goods day and night, to the shipyards loading and unloading pallets upon pallets of things, to the supercenters of this world with shelves stacked tall, we are all accustomed to being consumers of material goods.

In fact, you could say that we’re addicted to things and the rush we feel when shopping. We justify ourselves by saying that “we need it,” when those things also give us an escape from life’s daily stresses. Marketing research has shown that when we go shopping or buy a favorite brand, our bodies give us a pleasurable, endorphin-fueled high; compulsive shopping is considered a psychological disorder.

As we continue to settle into the Information Age, the addiction changes along with it. In addition to being slaves to our things — including our technology gadgets — we also are addicted to the data and information they serve up. (Which is why so many people can be found with their heads angled down, constantly looking at the screen.)

In a sense, we are addicted to information for its usefulness. No longer is having a something — a special widget, gadget, or special parcel of land, labor or capital — the driver of your success. Rather, in this new economy, information is clearly the source of competitive advantage.

In fact, information has become more valuable than material items. Corporate spies seek insider ammo to give themselves an advantage in the stock market. Hackers steal data from computer networks teeming with valuable information. And cyberterrorists carry out daily attacks against their nation-state targets to hobble their intelligence and communications infrastructures.

Yet it’s not just the value of the information itself that we want. If it were, once we had it we would go back to “real life” and put the computer away. But instead the opposite is true: The more we have, the more we seem to want. As Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins Jr. put it in October 2011, “What people want to do when liberated by technology is consume media. ... The real thrill is to be a giant, passive head plugged into everything,” just like the futuristic television series Star Trek predicted.

Both personally and professionally, I also am fascinated by the world of information and connection available to us these days through technology. It’s almost like having a hose constantly spewing forth the genius of our world, nourishing our neurons like a “braingasm” on the road to enlightenment.

Information technology is a wellspring for us to consume, but managing such an elixir requires us to take time to ingest as well as digest. The job of an IT leader is to capture and locate useful information to the organization and connect and return meaningful insights to solve business problems.

On a personal level, we’ve gotten addicted when we forget the real people, experiences and spirituality that underlie all our true success and happiness in life.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.