It’s a brave new world, as the volume of data eclipses the mind’s ability to process it
By James Scolari 06/03/2010
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God — which demonstrates the wisdom that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Over the course of time, the power of the word has evolved alongside us, from the cuneiforms and hieroglyphs of the Bronze Age to this modern age of information supernova. We are spun by the word — by information — more than ever before.
Tell it like it is
In pre-history, the spoken word was the dominant medium, evoked with tremendous power. The tribe depended on the word and wisdom of chief and shaman; such was the glue that bound society. Our ancestors didn’t know a lot about their world, but they were slowly learning, refining their stories through sharing and retelling.
Social evolution depended on information, information was scarce, and the world was very large.
We climbed out of the oral tradition with the invention of alphabets and the written record, even as that development further consolidated power in the hands of the elite, the chosen literate — the clerics — who wielded information in the form of the rare and painstakingly hand-lettered early Bible. That hammerlock was sustained until the 15th century — a time many historians regard as the watershed moment of modern society — with the introduction of the Gutenberg press. In one inventive stroke, information was wrested away from the king and his cardinals, and shared with the world.
With Gutenberg’s achievement, the printing industry exploded, carrying the word everywhere. By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had produced in excess of 20 million volumes; in the following century their output rose tenfold. With so much information steeping into society, a new activism was born, as culture shaped itself around information in a reformation that threatened the power of both crown and the pulpit, giving birth to individualism, democracy, capitalism and nationalism, and fueling such societal eruptions as the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, and irrevocably ushering in the modern age.
Information was suddenly available, it was changing everything, and the world was getting smaller.
In this period, the operation of the printing press became so synonymous with the enterprise — and the penetration of ever more information into common culture — that it lent its name to an entirely new branch of media, known simply as the press.
Open the floodgates
By the 17th century, the periodical was born, and with it the concept of “news,” i.e., timely and regular publication of current events. Within another century, the news had migrated to the New World; by the time of the American Revolution, there were nearly a hundred American newspapers, published in 35 cities. Opposition to the Stamp Tax, which was levied on newsprint, made most papers anti-royalist, greatly helping to galvanize a restive population in the overthrow of the Crown.
With the dawn of the Electronic Age, news and information finally came home to roost, first in radio, then television. When Walter Cronkite intoned “…and that’s the way it was” in 1970, much of America took it as Gospel. With the advent of electronic media, windows opened on a far-flung world as never before, and the reality of the “global village” was born. The televising of the Vietnam war brought it into living rooms in a way that no American war ever had been, again, to galvanizing effect.
Information was streaming into our homes, it was still changing us and we knew it. The world suddenly fit within a table-top box.
As the technological curve accelerated to new heights, new devices brokered new media, at last culminating in the mother lode — “the information superhighway” of the World Wide Web, which blew the Gutenberg Galaxy wide open. At last we had access to information without limit — news, reference texts, the classics, the evolving compendium of science, a vast sea of trivia and entertainment and erotica, even as the Web explosion and the market it served fueled new, ever evolving means of accessing all that information. Cell phones gave way to Web-ready smart phones; computers gave way to the ultraportable and ubiquitous laptop.
Information was everywhere, the world was now pocket-sized — and we began to realize there could be such a thing as too much information.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain …
As acts like blogging and Web sharing continue to grow in popularity, an important shift has occurred, for better or worse, as, in ever larger numbers, we not only consume information, we share it and author it in a new worldwide community of subjective thought. Of course, in such a climate, misinformation is rampant, and worse, disinformation becomes an effective tool of the unethical, a tactic on which neither side of the political argument has a monopoly.
With so much mistaken and fallacious information out there, it becomes increasingly difficult to sort fact from fiction. For example, when last fall a tax-revolt protest descended on Washington, D.C., an argument commenced with regard to the number of protesters on the National Mall, experts on one side projecting scores of thousands in attendance (seeking to minimize the story), experts on the other projecting hundreds of thousands (seeking to aggrandize it). Yet by the time online wags were finished sharing the story, the number had ballooned to 1.5 million – a wild exaggeration that was picked up by Fox News’ Glenn Beck and instantly varnished with the appearance of fact. Was Beck’s brand of journalism unethical? Depends on whom one asks. Was it factual? Most agree it was not. Yet despite questions of ethics, it seems to be good business, as Fox News posts profit gains in an age when trends in media economics are gloomy across the board.
“I think one reason you’re seeing the success of slanted news is that people are so overwhelmed by information,” notes Star Hunter, who instructs in journalism at Ventura College. “They’re seeking out information they can already agree with — that they don’t have to think about, that they can just nod and go on.”
“We need to develop a community of leaders, people using the Web to advance modern culture, to build community, build other leaders and support them,” says Ventura writer and photographer David Pu’u (www.davidpuu.com), an active blogger on both the local and national scene. “That is why I blog, that is why I am an artist. For me, it’s a moral responsibility.”
The idea of morality in journalism — whether in citizen journalism, as media like blogging is coming to be called, or the more traditional journalism of paid professionals — speaks to an ethical code that emerged in the press in the early 20th century. Acknowledging the unequivocal power of media, professional news organizations pledged to observe such ethical guidelines as balance and fairness in representing different sides of a story, compassion and sensitivity in the portrayal of those who might be impacted adversely by a given story, balancing the public’s right to know with a citizen’s right to privacy, and more.
With the growing popularity of partisan news programs like Beck’s on Fox News or the left-leaning programming of MSNBC, those standards seem to have been thrown out the window, and a time-honored journalistic tradition lost with it. Not necessarily so, says Hunter. “It’s been a modern thing that we’ve even asked for or expected objectivity,” she says. “Historically, journalists have been very partisan — so perhaps objectivity has just been a small slice of a much larger history.”
Whether media should be impartial or not is a matter of opinion. The net effect of media, however, and its power to either serve or injure society, is unequivocal. One of the leading voices in the U.S. on the subject of journalistic standards and ethics is the Society of Professional Journalists. The preamble to its code of ethics states:
“Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”
It’s an important job, as Hunter explains, “I go back to the first amendment. We’re the only real profession in the Constitution, and we’re there because we’re really the watchdogs, keeping an eye on government, to keep things honest. If we lose sight of that, what happens to democracy?”
What’s the frequency, Kenneth?
In the fall of 1986, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather suffered a beating at the hands of an unknown assailant, who was later revealed to be William Tager, who, while administering the beating, repeatedly yelled “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” The incident was widely adapted in popular culture, a non sequitur that seemed to provide eloquent comment on what had become a sound-byte society. Tager believed that the media were beaming messages directly into his head, and that with the correct frequency adjustment, the mental spam might be filtered. Though he served as fodder for numerous jokes and even a hit song by R.E.M., Tager was deadly serious, a fact he demonstrated when he subsequently shot and killed an NBC stagehand outside the stage of the Today Show.
In one respect, Tager was absolutely right. The proliferation of information had gone over the top, and new technologies were necessary to somehow filter it for us. In a 1997 book entitled Data Smog, journalist David Shenk proposed that the very information that had so long been beneficial to our advancement is revealing a harmful side, as every day people are buried under volumes of information exponentially too vast to be processed. “In 1971, the average American was targeted by at least 560 daily messages,” Shenk explained. “Twenty years later, that number had risen sixfold, to 3,000 messages per day. The sheer volume of information that many of us are exposed to every day may actually impair our performance and add stress to our lives.”
Since the publication of Shenk’s work, the problem has actually gotten far worse, with the advent of wireless Internet technology and “smart” phones that put the Web in one’s pocket. A decade after his book, Shenk opined on the spiraling problem, noting that while our grandparents were limited by access to information and speed of communication, today we are limited by our ability to wade through it all. In the same manner that food scarcity was ultimately replaced with a potentially harmful superabundance of calories — requiring mindfulness in diet — so, too, can information overload bloat our minds to unhealthy effect.
Shenk says, “Attention gets diverted (sometimes dangerously so), conversations and trains-of-thought interrupted, skepticism short-circuited, stillness and silence all but eliminated. Probably the greatest overall threat is that so many potentially meaningful experiences can easily be supplanted by merely thrilling experiences.”
Given the runaway popularity of websites like YouTube, or perhaps more to the point, Web success stories like Girls Gone Wild and literally thousands of similarly prurient look-alikes, his point is impossible to ignore. We have more information than ever, but in the ever-thickening forest of information, the beauty of the single tree becomes ever harder to distinguish.
Working to counteract the mounting stress of electronica are people like Reiki master and intuitive counselor Laurel Lyons (www.laurellyons.com), who advises people to slow down, take a break from electronics, and simply breathe. It’s the sort of tonic increasingly being prescribed for people suffering from information overload. “We are delicate creatures,” Lyons notes. “We are also contemplative beings; a measure of stillness is essential to our well-being.
When we are overstimulated, we forget our highest good, our personal boundaries, our limits. Life falls out of balance.”
In the end, as always, balance is the key. We can only process so much information, can only take so many calls, answer so many e-mails, peruse so many websites, or Facebook posts, or Twitter “tweets.” Since we can’t possibly take it all in, a wise course might be to set it aside now and then, to better remember and appreciate all the aspects of life that don’t turn on information. Truly, we can’t know everything, and we remain, for better or worse, only human. In the words of famed journalist Edward R. Murrow, “Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.”