Cyberspace and Information Overload

by on April 18, 2007 · 12 comments

Via The American, here’s a video of the late Neil Postman in 1995 offering a skeptical view of cyberspace:

He has a lot of smart things to say, but one of the things he gets profoundly wrong is the notion of “information overload”:

The worst images are of people who are overloaded with information, which they don’t know what to do with, have no sense of what is relevant and what is irrelevant. People who become information junkies.

The problem in the 19th century with information was that we lived in a culture of information scarcity. And so humanity addressed that problem, beginning with photography and telegraphy in the 1840s. We tried to solve the problem of overcoming the limitations of space, time, and form. For about 100 years, we worked on this problem, and we solved it in a spectacular way.

And now, by solving that problem, we’ve created a new problem that people have never experienced before: information glut, information meaningless, information incoherence. I mean, if there are children starving in Somalia, or any other place, it’s not because of insufficient information. And if crime is rampant in the streets of New York and Detroit and Chicago and wherever, it’s not because of insufficient information. And if people are getting divorced and mistreating their children and if sexism and racism are blights on our social life, none of that has anything to do with inadequate information.

Now along comes cyberspace and the information superhighway, and everyone seems to have the idea that “Ah, here, we can do it.” If only we can have more access to more information faster and in more diverse forms, at long last we’ll be able to solve these problems. And I don’t think it has anything to do with that.

I think this is wrong-headed in three ways. In the first place, as Yochai Benkler does a good job of explaining in The Wealth of Networks the organizing and filtering of information is itself a kind of information, and one that cyberspace is very good at producing. When we browse the web, we don’t read through web pages at random. We start with well-known news outlets, or our friends’ blogs, or specialty sites that focus on areas of particular interest to ourselves. Therefore, while there is an enormous amount of crap on the web, we have pretty good mechanisms for filtering out the crap before it gets to us, so that the average site we see is of much higher quality than the average site chosen at random.

It’s understandable that Postman wouldn’t have predicted that in 1995, since most of the relevant tools hadn’t been invented yet. But the other two problems with his argument should have been obvious even in 1995. First, the Internet is not, and never has been, an atomized or anti-social place. By 1995, Usenet and email were more than a decade old, there were plenty of online services with chat rooms and forums, and the open source movement was beginning to pick up steam. To the casual outside observer, the Internet may have looked cold and sterile, but no one who had used it extensively would make that mistake. And of course, now, it’s a lot more obvious that this isn’t true, given that so many kids spend a lot of time on MySpace, a site whose only virtue is that a lot of other kids are also on it.

But the final and most fundamental problem is this notion that more information won’t solve social problems. Now obviously more information won’t instantaneously or completely solve most social problems, but to take just one example at random: do we really think that the national television broadcasts of Bull Connor’s fire hoses had no effect on national opinion regarding Jim Crow?

And there are plenty of examples from the Internet age. Does anyone think that Cory Maye would have gotten the national attention (and competent legal counsel) he’s received had Radley Balko not had access to blogging software? Do we really think that this sort of thing contributes nothing to the betterment of society? Does the blogosphere’s dogged pursuit of Trent Lott for his implicit endorsement of segregation have no positive effects on racial harmony?

In fact, at the risk of over-stating my case, it seems to me that more and better information is probably the most important factor in solving social problems. There are many, many social problems that fester due to a lack of communication: there are people willing and able to help out, but there’s no feasible way to bring them together. The Internet helps philanthropists better target their donations, it helps voters make better choices in the ballot box, it helps businesses find better employees, it helps depressed or marginalized individuals find support from outside their community, and so forth. More information won’t all by itself, solve the world’s problems, but it’s an essential ingredient in solving almost all of them.

  • Brian Moore

    Maybe it just seemed that way in 1995. We’ve certainly developed quite a few good ways of organizing the information on the internet since then.

  • Brian Moore

    Maybe it just seemed that way in 1995. We’ve certainly developed quite a few good ways of organizing the information on the internet since then.

  • http://www.ituniv.se/~klang/wrote Mathias Klang

    While I agree we are getting better at sorting and arranging information I am not really sure if Postman was as far off the mark as you claim.

    Yes the information is out there and people have the ability to pick it up. No longer will the excuse that “we had no way of knowing” be valid. Yet despite this the information is still limited.

    Few people actually look for important stories outside the media focus. Few people (seem to) use the internet to penetrate the accepted media view of “the facts”.

    The main use of the Internet seems to be to reinforce the traditional channels and viewpoints. Despite the fact that alternative views of the truth are out there.

    Our ability to sort, order and sift information does not limit information overload it just provides us with a seemingly more unanimous view of reality and the truth.

    Boy did I wake up on the pessimistic side today :)

  • http://www.ituniv.se/~klang/wrote Mathias Klang

    While I agree we are getting better at sorting and arranging information I am not really sure if Postman was as far off the mark as you claim.

    Yes the information is out there and people have the ability to pick it up. No longer will the excuse that “we had no way of knowing” be valid. Yet despite this the information is still limited.

    Few people actually look for important stories outside the media focus. Few people (seem to) use the internet to penetrate the accepted media view of “the facts”.

    The main use of the Internet seems to be to reinforce the traditional channels and viewpoints. Despite the fact that alternative views of the truth are out there.

    Our ability to sort, order and sift information does not limit information overload it just provides us with a seemingly more unanimous view of reality and the truth.

    Boy did I wake up on the pessimistic side today :)

  • Peter Ward

    I’m afraid that I tend to disagree with you too. Arguably Postman is being vindicated on a daily basis. Despite huge increases in the amount of “information” (arguably “data” is a better term), social problems, war, famine, despotism and so-forth are increasing almost exponentially.

    I have access to almost unlimited sources of data concerning (say) Unfair Trade and World Poverty, but my accesss to this has no effect on either of these issues unless I take positive action in the real world, not Cyberspace.

    It seems to me, partially as a consequence of the “enabling” technologies that comprise cyberspace, our scope for action, and the effectiveness of that action seems to be diminishing. As Mathias points out the “lumpemness” of the Interweb seems to reinforce received wisdoms, rather than to question them. The truth may well be “out there”, but even if one stumbles upon it most people’s opinions are formed more by the mainstream media than what they unearth for themselves.

    People are almost totally cynical about the utterences of our supposed leaders, yet ironically seem also to become increasingly disbelieving of alternative sources and viewpoints. I think we now believe that everything we read, see and hear is so subject to manipulation by “them” that we can trust nothing and nobody.

  • Peter Ward

    I’m afraid that I tend to disagree with you too. Arguably Postman is being vindicated on a daily basis. Despite huge increases in the amount of “information” (arguably “data” is a better term), social problems, war, famine, despotism and so-forth are increasing almost exponentially.

    I have access to almost unlimited sources of data concerning (say) Unfair Trade and World Poverty, but my accesss to this has no effect on either of these issues unless I take positive action in the real world, not Cyberspace.

    It seems to me, partially as a consequence of the “enabling” technologies that comprise cyberspace, our scope for action, and the effectiveness of that action seems to be diminishing. As Mathias points out the “lumpemness” of the Interweb seems to reinforce received wisdoms, rather than to question them. The truth may well be “out there”, but even if one stumbles upon it most people’s opinions are formed more by the mainstream media than what they unearth for themselves.

    People are almost totally cynical about the utterences of our supposed leaders, yet ironically seem also to become increasingly disbelieving of alternative sources and viewpoints. I think we now believe that everything we read, see and hear is so subject to manipulation by “them” that we can trust nothing and nobody.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Social problems, war, famine, despotism and so-forth are increasing almost exponentially.

    Really? There are certainly plenty of problems in the world, but I don’t think it’s at all obvious that any of these problems are getting worse. The War in Iraq is pretty tame compared to World Wars I or II. In World War II, for example, the USSR suffered 23 million deaths—roughly the population of Iraq. I don’t think there’s been a conflict that’s come close to that level of barbarity since.

    On the famine and despotism front, I can’t find any hard data, but given the general increase in world GDP and particularly the rapid growth of Asian countries, I would be shocked if there are more famines today than 50 or 100 years ago. And I’m pretty sure more people live under liberal democracies today than at any point in the history of the world.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Social problems, war, famine, despotism and so-forth are increasing almost exponentially.

    Really? There are certainly plenty of problems in the world, but I don’t think it’s at all obvious that any of these problems are getting worse. The War in Iraq is pretty tame compared to World Wars I or II. In World War II, for example, the USSR suffered 23 million deaths—roughly the population of Iraq. I don’t think there’s been a conflict that’s come close to that level of barbarity since.

    On the famine and despotism front, I can’t find any hard data, but given the general increase in world GDP and particularly the rapid growth of Asian countries, I would be shocked if there are more famines today than 50 or 100 years ago. And I’m pretty sure more people live under liberal democracies today than at any point in the history of the world.

  • Brian Moore

    Peter:
    “Social problems, war, famine, despotism and so-forth are increasing almost exponentially.”

    This is just false. There are short term upticks, certainly, but over any long term time span (like since 1995, or 1945, or 1900) all 4 of those indicators have improved. “Social problems” might be hard to measure, but even there I feel pretty confident with a subjective measure. If we consider say “racism” and “sexism” to be social problems in this country, I’d say we’ve done a really good job over the last 100 years to improve; though obviously there is always room for more!

    Secondly, to a large extent, people 10/50/100 years ago were totally unaware of those problems around the world. Today, a vastly larger number are. Do you think that perhaps information had something to do with that? It seems rather obvious that even if these problems are bad, we must know about them before acting on them. No one is saying the internet will magically fix the world. But it can help.

    “even if one stumbles upon it most people’s opinions are formed more by the mainstream media than what they unearth for themselves.”

    So your response is to agree that we have too much information? That seems like a peculiar response.

    Mathias:
    “Our ability to sort, order and sift information does not limit information overload it just provides us with a seemingly more unanimous view of reality and the truth”

    Doesn’t this statement seem to be internally contradictory to you? How can this be true? Imagine that google returned only 1 result for any question — the “generally accepted result.” Then we would be exactly in the same situation as if google didn’t exist at all — we would all be forced to accept the conventional wisdom because we physically couldn’t know anything else.

    Does anyone think that the United States (or the world) is more unanimously in agreement on any issue today than we were 10, 50 or 100 years ago? Do Americans today, even those portrayed on major news networks, seem like a people unified in thought and action? I too bemoan the way that so many people placidly accept certain principles, but in no way can you argue that it is more prevalent today than it was in the past.

    There are more nutty religions, theories, philosophies, political views, principles and ideas running around than ever before. You could argue perhaps that the internet grants a megaphone to people whose ideas are demonstrably false, but to argue that “increased information” has led to some kind of universal unanimity seems… well, totally and completely at odds with the world around us.

    “Few people actually look for important stories outside the media focus. Few people (seem to) use the internet to penetrate the accepted media view of “the facts”.”

    It sounds like you think there should be MORE information so that people should more easily find “non-accepted” views. Yet you’re agreeing with Postman’s view that “information overload” is bad? It seems like your viewpoint is that we should reduce all the information available, but just somehow magically change all the “accepted views” to the right ones.

    “The main use of the Internet seems to be to reinforce the traditional channels and viewpoints”

    Which internet are you using? The one I use has millions of websites blaring the most controversial and bizarre standpoints on every topic, many of which receive millions of hits every day. Are you seriously arguing that the internet has led to some kind of calcification of opinion?

  • Brian Moore

    Peter:
    “Social problems, war, famine, despotism and so-forth are increasing almost exponentially.”

    This is just false. There are short term upticks, certainly, but over any long term time span (like since 1995, or 1945, or 1900) all 4 of those indicators have improved. “Social problems” might be hard to measure, but even there I feel pretty confident with a subjective measure. If we consider say “racism” and “sexism” to be social problems in this country, I’d say we’ve done a really good job over the last 100 years to improve; though obviously there is always room for more!

    Secondly, to a large extent, people 10/50/100 years ago were totally unaware of those problems around the world. Today, a vastly larger number are. Do you think that perhaps information had something to do with that? It seems rather obvious that even if these problems are bad, we must know about them before acting on them. No one is saying the internet will magically fix the world. But it can help.

    “even if one stumbles upon it most people’s opinions are formed more by the mainstream media than what they unearth for themselves.”

    So your response is to agree that we have too much information? That seems like a peculiar response.

    Mathias:
    “Our ability to sort, order and sift information does not limit information overload it just provides us with a seemingly more unanimous view of reality and the truth”

    Doesn’t this statement seem to be internally contradictory to you? How can this be true? Imagine that google returned only 1 result for any question — the “generally accepted result.” Then we would be exactly in the same situation as if google didn’t exist at all — we would all be forced to accept the conventional wisdom because we physically couldn’t know anything else.

    Does anyone think that the United States (or the world) is more unanimously in agreement on any issue today than we were 10, 50 or 100 years ago? Do Americans today, even those portrayed on major news networks, seem like a people unified in thought and action? I too bemoan the way that so many people placidly accept certain principles, but in no way can you argue that it is more prevalent today than it was in the past.

    There are more nutty religions, theories, philosophies, political views, principles and ideas running around than ever before. You could argue perhaps that the internet grants a megaphone to people whose ideas are demonstrably false, but to argue that “increased information” has led to some kind of universal unanimity seems… well, totally and completely at odds with the world around us.

    “Few people actually look for important stories outside the media focus. Few people (seem to) use the internet to penetrate the accepted media view of “the facts”.”

    It sounds like you think there should be MORE information so that people should more easily find “non-accepted” views. Yet you’re agreeing with Postman’s view that “information overload” is bad? It seems like your viewpoint is that we should reduce all the information available, but just somehow magically change all the “accepted views” to the right ones.

    “The main use of the Internet seems to be to reinforce the traditional channels and viewpoints”

    Which internet are you using? The one I use has millions of websites blaring the most controversial and bizarre standpoints on every topic, many of which receive millions of hits every day. Are you seriously arguing that the internet has led to some kind of calcification of opinion?

  • http://dsgazette.blogspot.com False Data

    I agree with you that there are “many, many social problems that fester due to a lack of communication,” in fact, I think the OLPC project is potentially revolutionary (literally, in the political sense) for that reason. But if some information is good, does it necessarily follow that more information is better? Or does it make a difference what kind of information we’re adding to the mix?

    Based on the comments to this post, I suspect the real divide is over whether our systems are effective and reliable at turning data into knowledge, which really gets back to your first point about filtering. If you think the filtering process works reliably at letting people make good decisions, and you believe the filters will keep working reliably as the information flow increases, then you’d naturally think that more information is necessarily better–after all, the amount of signal’s going to grow with the amount of noise. On the other hand, if you think too much information will break the filters, or you think some of them might already not be as effective as they should be, then you might expect there will come a point of information overload, or even think we might have passed that point.

  • http://dsgazette.blogspot.com False Data

    I agree with you that there are “many, many social problems that fester due to a lack of communication,” in fact, I think the OLPC project is potentially revolutionary (literally, in the political sense) for that reason. But if some information is good, does it necessarily follow that more information is better? Or does it make a difference what kind of information we’re adding to the mix?

    Based on the comments to this post, I suspect the real divide is over whether our systems are effective and reliable at turning data into knowledge, which really gets back to your first point about filtering. If you think the filtering process works reliably at letting people make good decisions, and you believe the filters will keep working reliably as the information flow increases, then you’d naturally think that more information is necessarily better–after all, the amount of signal’s going to grow with the amount of noise. On the other hand, if you think too much information will break the filters, or you think some of them might already not be as effective as they should be, then you might expect there will come a point of information overload, or even think we might have passed that point.

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