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Ask Marilyn: Is There Such a Thing as Useless Information?
David Draves of Decatur, Illinois, writes:
Marilyn: Would you please revisit a question and response that appeared in your column? Your answer has always bothered me a bit. A reader wrote to ask if you thought there was such a thing as useless information. Ignoring the fact that the information about Queen Victoria's bustle was useful to you for your response, and the fact that any information encourages synaptic connections, you missed an opportunity to identify "useless" information's potential for creativity.
Examples: In what bits of "useless" information might Einstein have seen (consciously or unconsciously) a pattern that led him to his Theory of Relativity? Or that bit of "useless" information about an obscure apple falling from an obscure tree in the 17th century, the results of which played a critical part of our getting to the moon? If the information about the results of mixing silicon and oil was deemed useless because it failed to create synthetic rubber during World War Two, we wouldn't have Silly Putty. And we don't know if there may have been a direct or indirect path between the Queen's bustle and the seat sensors in modern cars.
Anyway, the point is that if we cavalierly dismiss any information as useless, we put an unnecessary barrier in front of its potential to be useful.
I still think my original reply is correct—that not all information is useful. For readers who might be wondering what Queen Victoria's bustle has to do with anything, here's what I wrote: "For example, I recently read somewhere that back in the 1800's, Great Britain's Queen Victoria owned a bustle that would play 'God Save the Queen' whenever she sat down. Now, aside from letting us know that at least one of the grandchildren had a sense of humor when doing the Christmas shopping, that's useless information!"
Still, thinking about a world without Silly Putty gives me pause, all right.