Information obesity: The now and future epidemic

We are drowning in a torrent of data, much of it of dubious provenance, which is being sold as information.

The curtain went down at interval on the opening night of the opera Der Freischutz in Melbourne and the mobile phones were out. My partner’s lit up with the news, just two hours after the polls closed, that Queensland’s premier, Campbell Newman, had lost his seat. The middle-aged couple in the row in front of me were showing their companions video footage of skiing in Aspen. They were returning, for a third time, next week, and today’s weather report was promising for new snow… just look.

Of the matter of the moment? Der Freischutz? Oh yeah, von Weber’s music is… is… so pastoral isn’t it? And sharpshooter Max looks like Campbell Newman. How ‘bout that?

Clogging the arteries of cognition 

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman pondered the impact of the electric telegraph, the first easing of the information choke that limited the rate of dissemination of news to the pace of human travel, and limited content to the useful and the practical.

Henry David Thoreau, Postman noted, remarked "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas it may be, have nothing important to communicate." He was wrong. As nature abhors a vacuum, the telegraph quickly filled with the important and instrumental as well as the trivial and the frivolous.

The immediate flood of irrelevance, however, was slow to saturate the traditional media. As late as the beginning of World War II, some news remained utilitarian and instrumental. Papers of record like The Age carried the shipping news and other information of commercial and mercantile value on page one. No trivia there!

Certainly, there was a fiefdom in the popular press that delighted in gossip and trivia. Remarkably, that fiefdom shared something with the modern social media: it pioneered technological innovation, especially the use of line illustrations and, later, photographs in editorial content. The London Illustrated News and Melbourne’s Sun News Pictorial were two excellent examples.

And until recently, news media was a highly selective one-way street, but no longer. Not only can you know what the good burghers of Maine and Texas are doing, you can study their behaviour in detail in replay, critique technique and sledge and troll to your heart’s content. And it can all be done from a coward’s castle, not of parliamentary privilege, but of anonymity. 

We are drowning in a torrent of data, much of it of dubious provenance, which is being sold as information. Daily, there’s too much to digest into knowledge, to convert into the muscles of the mind and excrete the frivolous fibre and bulk. Data is clogging the arteries of cognition, hindering our ability to make decisions that require perception and insight and wasting our time.

And the problem can only grow. The sales of iPhones in China are soon expected to exceed sales in the US, so another 1.35 billion are joining the ranks of the information obese. Fortunately, Chinese citizens have been relieved of any decision-making role at state and national elections.

Sifting through the dross  

When news was a highly selective one-way street, the street monitors were the journalists and editors and, in some cases, the proprietors. And yes, the news was somewhat shaped by political agendas but, for the most part, those agendas were in turn shaped by wider public discourses about democracy, society, religion and fiscal and personal economics. 

Democratic society had a huge feed-back loop, an information cycle like the water cycle, that was constantly, yet cautiously, metering the flow of information in the community. Radical ideas got a little space: if they gained some popularity they got more space and irritated the conservatives who would seek to marginalise or discredit them. The battle occurred in the public domain with many watching and some contributing, and the community evaluating. At least, that was the principle.

Today, in this data deluge, few are watching any one discourse, all are contributing via today’s telegraph look alike, Twitter, and none are evaluating. The late Neil Postman described the telegraph as characterised by ‘large scale irrelevance, impotence and incoherence’. I wonder what he would say about Twitter.

How do people deal with this diet of data dross? One solution is to select those morsels that touch us personally and ignore the rest. Of this practice, evidence the selfie: I am the centre of my universe and have the pictures to prove it. An issue that is not of me and today is not an issue.

This thinking is clearly a hazard to collective decision making, and a hazard to the concept of community. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher was prescient and should have said "There will be no such thing as society. There will be just individual men and women…"

Perhaps, this inability to think beyond the self and the day is as much behind the one-term governments, that are the order of the day in Australian politics, as much as the socially toxic and inequitable policies of those governments. 

Samuel Morse thought his telegraph would create "one neighbourhood of the whole country," and Marshall McLuhan, had us housed in a global village. The new social media could see us confined to cabals of common indifference to the wider world. Whatever, the social and political dynamics of the community are extremely fluid at present, and politics and the media can look forward only to more instability.

And as for Der Freischutz? Max, who looked like Campbell Newman, lost the shoot-out but got the girl. Life imitates art again?

Dr Vincent O'Donnell is an Honorary Associate of the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University and presenter of the Community Radio Network, national arts and culture current affairs program Arts Alive.

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