It might seem like our current information glut is without parallel, but throughout history observers have worried about the impact of too much information on our ability to rationally process and make sense of it. When we moved from an oral storytelling culture to print with the invention of the printing press. Or with the invention of the telegraph, which allowed our thoughts to be transmitted across continents, for the first time exceeding the physical speed of a human body.
The ability to spread information changes the kinds of things we talk about, and therefore find important. And Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, is worth revisiting for his observations about the transition from the age of print to the age of television. He laments that in leaving the written argument behind, TV substitutes entertaining aphoristic messages for substantive evidence-based reason. Worse, TV gives the illusion of seeing and knowing more but being less powerful to act on any of it. Information as entertainment. Images as emotional triggers which don’t enlighten. He worries that as we distract ourselves and get addicted to being diverted, we lose the ability to determine what actually matters and forget we have the power to do anything about it. One suspects he would feel fully-vindicated in his cautions seeing the media universe of today in which we carry our phones everywhere in fear of allowing a single second to pass without distraction.
I think the take-home message here is a warning about the trap of feeling informed on a diet of information that does not matter and which we cannot do anything about. Were you outraged during the Trump years and spent hours every day following every little scandal and transgression? For what purpose? After, say, the first dozen or so outrages, did subsequent scandal change your opinion about the man? Did additional information shape new actions, new responses on your part that made a difference in either stopping him or changing the situation? You gave money, sure. You voted, sure. But think about the possibly thousands of hours you wasted in being outraged. And to what purpose?
This was Postman’s point. The “news” as reported on television was about things its viewers would be unable to impact, so why be informed about it? He concludes that it was for entertainment value, as a distraction from having to participate more fully in the world, yet behind an illusion of participating through knowing about it. One can imagine, in a way, this is how fame works. We know about something that others also know so we now feel an investment in and a kinship with our community in the know. This is how we create meaning.
But in the current media universe which has flattened our hierarchies of information, information feeds become more and more deadening, and the sense of boredom that one feels consuming it is not from having nothing to do but being overwhelmed by choices that don’t seem to lead to anything nourishing. I wrote a bit more about Postman over on Post Alley.