Information in the Digital Age

Source Text

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּיוֹשְׁבִים לִפְנֵי חֲכָמִים. סְפוֹג, וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, וְנָפָה. סְפוֹג, שֶׁהוּא סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֹּל. מַשְׁפֵּךְ, שֶׁמַּכְנִיס בְּזוֹ וּמוֹצִיא בְזוֹ. מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַיַּיִן וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַשְּׁמָרִים. וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּמַח וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת

There are four temperaments among those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. The sponge — because it absorbs everything. The funnel — because it lets in at [one end] and lets out at [the other]. The strainer — because it lets the wine out and retains the sediment. The sieve — because it lets out the [inferior] flour and retains the fine flour.

Initial Questions

  1. When am I most likely to suffer from the “TMI” (too much information) syndrome?
  2. When do I thrive on the complexity of various sources of information?
  3. What filters do I create for retaining “essential information?”
  4. How do I let go of “bad” information?

Another perspective on dealing with a great deal of information comes when we turn to a selection from Pirkey Avot/foundational sayings of wisdom that deals with arba’ah midot, the four kinds of learners who learn with the wise. These learners are likened to the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. Each of them processes knowledge differently. The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel retains nothing. The strainer collects all the wrong knowledge. The sieve, which separates gross flour from fine flour, is the winner of this staged knowledge contest.

At first blush, one tends to privilege the sieve-like capacities of our mind in a digital age (think of the phrase “TMI,” too much information). Yet there are also reasons to view this instinct as problematic. The terms solet and kemach as descriptions of material going through the sieve may betray archaic nutritional theory as well as what we have come to know about the brain’s learning processes. Solet is the fine white flour separated from the kemach coarser flour of the shell itself. Yet, nutritionally we have come to value the coarser flour because of the nutrients contained in the raw, unbleached product. Who, these days, touts the virtues of bleached white bread? In general while sieves and screens perform useful pedagogic functions they generally function best after students have grist for the mill, the raw chewy flour of complex knowledge.