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.

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