Information Overload

An Over-Abundance of Information in the Information Age

Posted Apr 4, 2010
Last Updated Nov 12, 2011

There is a paradox I live with every day. On the one hand, I build websites for businesses. My role is usually back end— building functions for applications or making sites structurally clean so that search engines will consider them for high rankings. The second half of that job (about search engines) is the main part of this side of the paradox—it is a form of manipulating perspective.

The other side of the paradox is that I love knowledge and truth. I spent a few years working as journalist... sharing information is in my blood. Although I wouldn't label myself as a full-blooded journalist, I know that I cannot ever get away from the urge to share information and educate the public when and wherever I can.

Hence, the problem. I have already discussed the Problems of Journalism. What is bothering me with the paradox considered here is that I am becoming poignantly aware of a problem that, while not so new to humanity, is on the verge of exploding in a way that humanity has never had to endure. It's the explosion of information.

For someone who loves information, you'd think I should laud that idea. The problem is that not all information is valid. You can wrap misinformation in any euphemism you want (ignorance, deception, mistake) but it always does the same thing—send people's minds down paths that make decisions they probably wouldn't make had they known better. (An example was the information that the public had early last century that the ship RMS Titanic was unsinkable.)

Propaganda VS. White Noise

Historically, the entire collection of human knowledge could probably be housed in a single building. The amount of information available that was important to a society beyond a small point in time and space was very limited. Historical records, philosophical ideas, mathematics, etc., was so limited that a single human could probably learn the entire body of information. Granted, a lot of that information was wrong due to ignorance (Earth, it turns out, is not at the center of the Universe; even the idea of a center of the universe may not even relate to reality.) A lot of information was wrong due to deception in the form of propaganda. (A significant percentage of historical documents are little more than exaggerated accounts of the virtues of vain kings.)

But because the volume of information available to ancient scholars was limited, it took less effort for a skeptic to filter out obvious efforts at mass deception. And for the average person, there probably was little to no direct exposure to academic propaganda since literacy for many people has been the exception rather than the norm (which presents its own problems, which are beyond my discussion here).

In the modern era, the problem of kings and propaganda still exits. The beast of political propaganda is most dangerous in non-democratic nations (see the National Geographic Explorer documentary "Inside North Korea” for a chilling example of political propaganda at the worst extreme). But it still exists inside more open societies like the US. (Think about how the Bush administration used propaganda to change the phrase "Weapons of Mass Destruction” from meaning nuclear weapons to almost anything—biological weapons, chemical weapons, etc—to justify America's policy towards Iraq earlier this Century. Or how the Obama administration is telling us that we have a moral obligation to force Americans to buy insurance policies from insurance companies...)

But the brunt of modern propaganda comes from corporations. They bedazzle us with advertisements that seem so friendly, sexy, empowering and necessary. Corporations have learned to hire psychologists and do group studies to find out how every word will affect the most people; how every smile or skin color will affect the group watching commercials during shows X, Y and Z. Modern corporations and advertising has turned into a fishing industry... set out the lines and we will catch some number of fish. In this case, dangle the right sexy smile and empty the pockets of some number of people straight into the coffers of another entity called share holders.

Songwriter/poet Barry Childs-Helton recently wrote, "A whole lot of the incoming information is permeated with attempts at manipulation (call it promotion, or, what the hell, recruiting for somebody’s mob).”

That's modern propaganda. Glossy, million-dollar ads and warm smiles.

On the other side is the cacophony called the Internet. Blogs, social networks... they all shout out a million things every second. At first the freedom of the Internet is exhilarating, especially if you are either hungry for new ideas or anxious to get your word out, or both. But after a time, it doesn't seem so fresh; in fact, it generates its own patterns that, ironically, are leading straight back to corporate propaganda.

The majority of the Internet is crap, globally speaking. A huge percentage of it is filled up with individuals with nothing important to say—except that they want to share it anyway. Spend any amount of time on social networking sites, and you'll see that most of the information is useless. "I hope today is better than yesterday.” "I scored five zillion on Farmville today.” Even for those who might read it, it's little more than filler. Kind of like the smog that hangs over cities.

And it is growing extremely fast. Everyone is sharing these ideas, which are less like ideas than written sighs. White noise on the Internet is a global sigh of boredom or exasperation. And that is the problem with information exploding in the modern era. There is an explosion of information that adds so little. It's usually not educational information; it means nothing in a month; it's rarely poetic. It is the kind of information that no one will care about in a generation—but it won't burn up like the scrolls that incinerated in the Library of Alexandria a couple thousand years ago. It will just grow, like a massive digital landfill.

When we turn to the Internet for information, we are confronted with a challenge that ancients never had. In our era, we aren't starving for books; we are drowned in useless information. So we create tools to filter information. And here is a new problem. Most of us don't have the tools (technologically, programmatic) to filter that information ourselves. We have to turn to others. Google. MSN. Yahoo!. Bing... the list goes on. We are giving our trust to find useful information to corporations.

I have not been able to reconcile the paradox in my life as a professional web developer and journalist-turned-blogger. Hell, I don't even like being called a blogger because of the paradox in mind. The only thing that helps me feel more consistent is that I remain poignantly aware of the issue... and I try to share the dilemma with anyone who wants to try to raise up a more discerning world. The Internet is a giant book of sighs wrapped in advertisements. There are good things on it... but just like looking for fossils... they often require a lot of work to find.

Media Studies

Articles about modern society, media, journalism, propaganda and information in the Internet Age.

  1. Problems with Journalism
  2. Online Vs Print
  3. Information Overload
  4. Forum Etiquette in the 21st Century

Comment

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Jutien Vandersteen

Jul 19, 2010

Thanx Sharon, for sharing your thoughts on this interesting topic. Using corporations like Bing, Google, Yahoo! and Baidu to filter infomation from the web is not really a choice. The free market generated only a handfull of global companies that offer search-engines / search-engine-software. These companies all collect and store the data you enter via their website, or via their browsers. You seem to have the technical and programmatic skills to develop software that filters information from the web - why don't you use these skills to build an alternative ?. Stop thinkingtalking, start doingdoing : why don't gather some other techies-nerd-geeks and develop open-source search engine software that operates independently from any corporation ?

Sun Vermeeersch

Jun 24, 2011

Great idea Jutien !
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