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In the Midst of the Information Age, Why Are We So Uninformed?

One has to go back to Sir Francis Bacon in 1597 for the origins of the quote, “Knowledge is power.”

Because of its capacity to control and influence, knowledge was once hoarded by those in position of authority. Today, however, knowledge is readily available to anyone who wants it.

According to the folks at the Davinci Institute, there are:

  • More than 3.5 million songs available on iTunes.
  • More than 4 million books available on Amazon alone.
  • More than 60 million blogs available online.
  • More than 4 million entries on Wikipedia.
  • More than 6 million videos on YouTube.

World Economic ForumYet, in a Pew research poll from last August, while 58 percent of Americans claimed they followed “international affairs,” only 28% could name the British prime minister. And while two out of every three respondents said they followed “political figures and events in Washington,” only 43 percent could name the American Secretary of State at that time.

Given that we are in the midst of an information age, the fact that so many of us are uninformed has experts scratching their heads. Is the failure one of effort or a result of the pace of our society? Is it a lack of intellectual prowess that prevents the assimilation of all the available information or an overall malaise that overcomes even the most well-intentioned of efforts?

Information Overload

While access is now less limited, the sheer volume of material available has many contending that the issue is simply one of information overload. A Washington Post editorial by Dusty Horwitt, “If Everyone’s Talking, Who Will Listen?” recently made such a claim.

Horwitt asserted that TMI (too much information) was the root cause of many societal issues today. Readers will find that he even went so far as to assert that the volume of information available had the potential to undermine our democracy.

MichaelMarlattWhile it is a frequent assertion, it is interesting to note that Tim Stahmer at Assorted Stuff isn’t buying the notion of Horwitt’s suggestions as to how to better handle information moving forward. Stahmer is suspect of such a message, one that contends the volume of information available “is burying us in extraneous data” and preventing “important facts and knowledge from reaching a broad audience,” especially since it is coming from someone who works in the now-failing, traditional media market.

Writes Stahmer:

“Maybe his concern is that fewer people are reading big media publications like the Post.”

Stahmer then adds the words of Ben Stein to the mix, yet another of those who has at times insisted society would be far better off with a more limited flow of information. As one might expect, the blogger has a different take.

He does not favor a return to “a few traditional filters of …. information (like the Post, the Times, and Ben Stein)” being “the ones telling us what’s important.” Instead, Stahmer insists, “I’d rather learn to sift through the flow of data myself.”

It is a strong message, one that insinuates that big media simply wants to return itself to its former position of power, i.e., the aforementioned situation where once upon a time knowledge was held by a select few.

Columbia Journalism Review

Bree Nordenson offers some additional insight into the matter in “Overload! Journalism’s Battle for Relevance in an Age of Too Much Information.” Given that the piece is on the Columbia Journalism Review site and the recent revelations that the school is in fact rethinking its journalism program, we probably should attach the same healthy skepticism to Nordenson’s piece as Stahmer attaches to the Post writer.

But still, buried within the article, is some very helpful information. First, there is a great synopsis of the change in available information.

“The information age is defined by output: we produce far more information than we can possibly manage, let alone absorb. Before the digital era, information was limited by our means to contain it.

Will Lion
“Publishing was restricted by paper and delivery costs; broadcasting was circumscribed by available frequencies and airtime. The Internet, on the other hand, has unlimited capacity at near-zero cost.”

While Clay Shirky would take exception to the notion that the new information is defined by output only (we tend to agree that the new age is more defined by interaction), there is truly more information available today than any of us can completely manage. And the increase in production is obtained without the prior costs associated with distributing and storing information online.

As to why more people are not better informed about world affairs, despite the increased output, Nordenson notes that there can be a “tendency to become passive in the face of too much information.”

While that is definitely true, it is likely far more attributable to the vast array of choices now available to internet users, choices that also offer greater control and personalization. She quotes Delli Carpini and Markus Prior who offer simple explanations as to why more people are not up on key public-affairs issues.

“As choice goes up, people who are motivated to be politically informed take advantage of these choices, but people who are not move away from politics,” states Carpini. Prior adds, “Political information in the current media environment comes mostly to those who want it.”

Unlike Horwitt, Nordenson sees the new trends as having potential benefit for our democracy. She writes, “Our access to digital information, as well as our ability to instantly publish, share, and improve upon it at negligible cost, hold extraordinary promise for realizing the democratic ideals of journalism.”

But she does note, “As information proliferates, … people inevitably become more specialized both in their careers and their interests. Personalized home pages, newsfeeds, and e-mail alerts, as well as special-interest publications lead us to create what sociologist Todd Gitlin disparagingly referred to as ‘my news, my world.’ ”

Explanatory Journalism

To produce more savvy readers, there is a move away from the traditional news format to one Nordenson calls explanatory journalism. Such journalism goes beyond reporting a specific news event and the facts related to it.

Will LionExplanatory journalism attempts to supply depth and context to what is being reported and even adds a touch of information filter. While many news outlets are struggling to retain readers, she notes that the publication “The Week,” has actually seen a circulation growth.

The magazine seeks to determine the top news stories and then synthesize them for readers. The editor of “The Week” notes the fundamental purpose of the magazine is “not to tell people the news but to make sense of the news for people.” Therefore, almost like the teachers of yesteryear, “The Week” seeks to be the sage on the stage, a news outlet that does the sifting and the filtering that busy Americans do not have time for.

The model has also taken shape at the BBC News web site. A major news story on the BBC page has several links prominently displayed in a sidebar that offer numerous additional articles that explain and add context to the feature story.

Ironically, the concept that appears to work best is one that does move from the gatekeeper mentality, the knowledge is power model, to one that guides readers towards additional information that then allows them to gain the necessary insight to wrap their arms completely around an issue.

At the same time, what is most telling is that explanatory journalism does not necessarily involve reducing the amount of information available to readers.

Technology Is the Issue

Ironically, nearly 20 years ago, Neil Postman delivered a rather extraordinary and prophetic speech at a meeting of the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik) in Stuttgart. “Informing Ourselves To Death” offered many pearls including the notion that school teachers as we know them will disappear in the technological age.

“School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television,” offered Postman, “as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press.”

In regards to the information issue, Postman insisted that the public was not so uninformed as it was unable to place ideas in context. He spoke of a little research he had done, albeit not so rigorous or traditional in its ability to control variables, but extremely telling nonetheless.

Postman would select an unsuspecting victim, a colleague who appeared not to be in possession of the morning newspaper. He would begin

just.Luc“Did you read The Times this morning?”

If the colleague were to answer yes, he would end his experiment for that person that day. But if the person said no, he would begin to make up some far-fetched story.

“You ought to look at Page 23,” he would state. “There’s a fascinating article about a study done at _______ University.” When an inviting reply came, one that matched the traditional response of a colleague, something like “Really? What’s it about?” Postman would let loose with something outlandish.

An example he used in his speech was one he often tried on peers he knew to be health-conscious:

“I think you’ll want to know about this,” he would go on. “The neuro-physiologists at the University of Stuttgart have uncovered a connection between jogging and reduced intelligence. They tested more than 1200 people over a period of five years, and found that as the number of hours people jogged increased, there was a corresponding decrease in their intelligence. They don’t know exactly why but there it is.”

Postman summarized the results of his informal study thus: “Unless this is the second or third time I’ve tried this on the same person, most people will believe or at least not disbelieve what I have told them. Sometimes they say: ‘Really? Is that possible?’ Sometimes they do a double-take, and reply, ‘Where’d you say that study was done?’ And sometimes they say, ‘You know, I’ve heard something like that.'”

Still, Postman railed of too much information before others began to make the assertion. In fact, twenty years ago, Postman noted that information came “indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness.”

He went on to add, “we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”

But for Postman, the fact that we do not know what to do with or how to handle this information came from a whole different perspective. He adds a touch of the spiritual in his first reason:

“First, we no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don’t know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives.”

He then headed off to construct the place where others believe we are today:

“Second, we have directed all of our energies and intelligence to inventing machinery that does nothing but increase the supply of information. As a consequence, our defenses against information glut have broken down; our information immune system is inoperable. We don’t know how to filter it out; we don’t know how to reduce it; we don’t know to use it.”

Postman also managed to express one of the possible reasons as to why in the face of a great deal of information so many people feel overwhelmed. The simple fact of the matter is that the information “cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane.”

Will LionOur technology cannot “provide an organizing moral framework” and “it cannot tell us what questions are worth asking” offered Postman. Instead, “The computer is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most needed to confront — spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future.”

And so, in simplest terms, for Postman, it was the unmet promises of technology that formed the ultimate issue.

“Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better,” stated Postman, “religion better, politics better, our minds better — best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense.”

A Golden Age

If knowledge is truly power, then we should be entering a golden age, one where everyone has unlimited access to the authority once held only by the elite in society.

The fact that we seem to be far from such a place does beg several questions.

And the biggest one befalls education – many have written that the next phase of schooling must move towards a focus that places the information age at its core for the next generation of learners. In fact, it would seem that the words of Postman are most prescient – twenty years ago he noted the volume of information that was being produced and the issues that it would present.

But education changed little over those 20 years. So we now have a large group of citizens unable to emotionally and intellectually handle the breadth of information available to them.

The answer is certainly not to limit information. The answer is in creating an educational system that helps individuals understand how to best make use of the knowledge.

The power that today’s information-rich society has available is truly unprecedented. As always, education is the great equalizer, but now we must turn our attention towards helping our young people learn how to filter, reduce and use the knowledge that is accessible to them.

Flickr photos courtesy of World Economic Forum, Michael Marlatt, Will Lion, Will Lion, just.Luc and Will Lion.

3 comments

1 jave { 03.16.09 at 10:23 pm }

This article is very inspiring and so true. I wanted to give an informative speech to my class about what’s really going on in our economy but no one liked the idea. So now I will support this article and present the truth to my class.

2 Sarah { 11.07.09 at 3:55 am }

I must disagree with the idea that the best idea is to limit information. I think the most lacking feature of education today (including many universities) is critical thinking. As an academic, I have always had to wade through information, but learning to spot the relevant information is key.
The problem with most people I run into today is they seem to think that because they’ve read something means it’s true. Or, worse yet, in the case of listening to those in power, that they always speak the truth.

3 Joe { 11.13.10 at 11:12 pm }

Getting information of the internet isn’t so much like taking a drink from a fire hydrant as it is like drinking from a sewer. What we are really being buried in is opinions, not information. Any truly useful information is lost in a morass of forums, advertisements and redirects. If the internet is ever going to be truly useful, there will have to be some kind of control to separate information from nonsense. Can we get a filter for our search engines that removes any result that is not vetted? I know from experience of nearly thirty years in the government that nothing causes as much trouble as people who think they know something, but have never bothered to verify their “facts”.

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