Information Overload

The great English playwright and social philosopher George Bernard Shaw once remarked that all professions are conspiracies against the common folk.  He meant that those who belong to elite trades (doctors, lawyers, teachers, and scientists) protect their special status by creating vocabularies that are incomprehensible to the general public.  This process prevents outsiders from understanding what the profession is doing and why, and protects the insiders from close examination and criticism.  Professions, in other words, build forbidding walls of technical gobble-de-gook over which the prying and common eye cannot see.

Unlike Shaw, I raise no complaint against this, for I myself have been the outsider, even though now I could be considered one of the “professionals” and I appreciate the technical gobble-de-gook as much as anyone.  But I don’t object if someone who does not know the secrets of my profession is allowed entry to the inner halls to express an untutored point of view.  Such a person may sometimes give a refreshing opinion or, even better; see something in a way that the professionals have overlooked.  For example; I don’t know any more about computer technology than the average person, which isn’t very much.  I have little understanding of what excites a computer programmer or a technology specialist.  But I do believe that I have a point of view that might be useful to insiders.  I believe that I know something about what technologies do to culture, and I know even more about what technologies undo in a culture.  In-fact, I might say, at the start, that what a technology undoes is a subject that computer experts apparently know very little about.  I have heard so called experts speak about the advantages that computer technology will bring.  But I have never heard anyone speak seriously and comprehensively about the disadvantages of computer technology, which strikes me as odd, and makes a paranoid person such as myself wonder if the profession is hiding something important.  The same could be said about proponents of multiculturalism, or of evolutionary theory, or of various other studies and points of view, including theology when not spoken in the common language (that’s most likely the protestant in me coming out). 

Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a matter of give and take.  Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure.  A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys, sometimes it destroys more than it creates, but it is never one sided.  The invention of the printing press is an excellent example.  Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration.  Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression.  Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition.  Printing assisted in growth of the nation state, but in doing so, made patriotism into a sordid if not murderous emotion in the hearts of many.  I guess you could say that the coming of new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups.  School teachers for example will in the long run probably be made obsolete by technology; just as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as bards were made obsolete by the printing press.  Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.

Let’s look at computers.  There is no doubt that the computer has increased the power of large scale organizations like military establishments, or oil companies, or banks.  And it is also clear that the computer is now indispensable to high-level research in physics and other sciences.  But look what computer technology has done to the common person.  Auto workers are out of jobs thanks to robots, as are steel workers.  Some of that is due to outsourcing and NAFTA, but also some of it is due to technology.  Everyday people are having their private matters made more accessible (look at all the stories about Google Earth and the like), I’m sure you’ve heard that all televisions are going digital, and if you do not have a TV capable of digital you are S.O.L., but there is also a lot of underground talk about how camera’s are being placed within these new digital televisions so that Uncle Sam can keep tabs on you.  That all sounds Big Brotherish to me, but who knows in today’s society?  We are tracked with cookies in our computers so that the markets “might better serve us.”  We are then buried in spam from advertising agencies and political parties.  Schools now teach children to operate computerized systems instead of teaching them fundamental things that are more valuable to children (they may not know proper English but they can sure post their latest beat down to you tube).  In a word, almost nothing happens to the “losers” that they really need, which is why they are the “losers.”

It is expected that the winners will encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology.  That is the way of winners, and so they sometimes tell the losers, that with PC’s the average person can balance a checkbook, keep better track of things, shop at home, get all the information they wish, and thus make a lot of the mundane things of life unnecessary.  They tell them that life will be conducted more efficiently, but never telling them at what cost.  Should the losers grow skeptical, the winners dazzle them with the wondrous feats of technology, many of which have only marginal relevance to the quality of the losers’ lives, but which are nonetheless impressive.  Eventually the losers succumb, in part because they believe that the specialized knowledge of the masters of technology is a form of wisdom, and that form of wisdom equates to power.  The masters, of course, come to believe this as well.  The result is that certain questions arise; such as, to whom will technology give greater power and freedom, and whose power and freedom will be reduced?  Now to read this, as I’m writing it, it all sounds like a well-planned conspiracy, as if the winners know all too well what is being won and what is lost.  But this is not quite how it happens, because the winners quite often don’t know what they are doing, and where it will all lead.  The Benedictine monks who invented the mechanical clock in the 12th century (I believe it was around this time, but I may need to be checked for accuracy here), believed that such a clock would provide a precise regularity to the seven periods of devotion they were required to observe during the course of the day.  As a matter of fact, it did.  But what the monks did not realize is that the clock is  not merely a means of keeping track of the hours of the day, but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men.  Maybe Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were on to something in Easy Rider.  So, by the middle of the 14th century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the worker and the merchant.  The mechanical clock made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours, and a standardized product.  Without the clock, capitalism would have been virtually impossible.  And so, here is a great paradox; the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; and it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of materialistic goods (ie mammon).  Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win or loose. 

I’ll give you another historical example, that being the example of Johann Gutenberg.  Gutenberg, by all accounts was a devoted Christian who would have been horrified to hear Martin Luther, the accused heretic, declare that printing was an act of God’s grace in which the business of the Gospel was driven forward.  The reason for this was that Gutenberg was a Catholic, who thought his invention would advance the cause of the Catholic Church, but instead it resulted in bringing about such a protest that the church would never be the same.  So we have to ask ourselves, is there something that the masters of modern technology think they are doing for us, which they and we may have reason to regret?  I think so.  I will try to explain what I think is so dangerous about the computer, and why I think it.  Let me begin by telling you about a little experiment I have been conducting for the past several years.  Here’s how it works:  Whenever I happen to run into someone that is obviously an educated person (such as a professor, or a doctor, or lawyer, or teacher, etc…) I ask them if they heard or read the news today (be it the New York Times, Reuters, CNN, etc…) if they say yes they heard, watched, or read the news that morning the experiment ends.  But if the answer is “no” the experiment can proceed.  And so I will say something like, “Well you should have, Harvard University has done an amazing study.”  Most people will inquire what the study was about and so I’ll continue with something like, “Well, they did this study to find out what foods are best to eat for loosing weight, and it turns out that a normal diet supplemented by chocolate éclairs, eaten six times a day, is the best.  It seems that there is some special nutrient in the éclairs that actually uses up calories at an amazing rate.”  The news story based on the fictional study is only limited to ones imagination, but it can be about anything, as long as you say that the study was backed up by a reputable source such as Harvard, Yale, MIT, the APA, the CDC, etc…  the point is to report something that is totally ridiculous.  But let me tell you what the most common result of this little study is:  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’ve told them.  Sometimes they say, “Wow, who would have thought that?”  Or, “Where did you say this story came from?”  And sometimes they say something like, “You know, I think I read that somewhere.”  About sixty years ago H.L. Mencken said, “There is no idea so stupid that you can’t find a professor who will believe it.”  Also about sixty years ago George Orwell said that, “The average person today is about as naïve as was the average person in the Middle Ages.  In the Middle Ages people believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what.  Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what.” 

But I think there is another, more important conclusion to be drawn, and that is the fact that the world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us.  There is almost no fact, whether actual or imagined, that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction.  We believe because there is no reason not to believe.  No social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual reason.  We live in a world that for the most part makes no sense to us.  Not even technical sense.  Think about it.  There are people who actually still believe that Al Gore invented the internet.  If I were to tell a group of people that the keys on their computer keyboard were made from a new process of making plastic out of cloned turkey feet, there may actually be some who believed it, and then if I were to get an industrial chemist to confirm this fact by describing some incomprehensible process by which it was done; you would probably tell someone tomorrow that you type on keys that were formed by a new process of making plastic out of cloned turkey feet.  Think about it like this; if you opened a brand new deck of cards, and you went through them one at a time, you would have a pretty good idea of what their order was.  After you started from the ace of spades and made your way to the nine of spades, you would no doubt expect a ten of spades to come next.  But if a three of diamonds showed up instead you would probably wonder what was wrong with this brand new deck of cards.  However; if I gave you a deck that had been shuffled twenty times, you would most likely not expect the cards to show up in any particular order, because you had no basis for assuming a given order, and because you had no basis for assuming a given order, you would have no reason to react with disbelief or even surprise to whatever card came up.  The point is that, in a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise. 

If you want to get right down to it, George Orwell was more than unfair to the average person of the Middle Ages.  The belief system of the Middle Ages was a lot like the brand new deck of cards.  There was an ordered, comprehensible world view, beginning with the idea that all knowledge and goodness came from God.  What priests and theologians had to say about the world was derived from the logic of their theology.  There was nothing arbitrary about the things people were asked to believe, including that the world itself was created in an instant by the Word of God in or around the year 4000 B.C.  Such a statement could be explained, and was in a clear and easily understood way, to the satisfaction of anyone.  So could the fact that 10,000 angels could dance on the head of a pin.  It made good sense, if you believed that the Bible is the revealed word of God and that the universe is populated with angels.  The medieval world was, to be certain, mysterious and filled with wonder, but it was not without a sense of order.  Ordinary men and women might not clearly grasp how the harsh realities of their lives fit into the grand and benevolent design, but they had no doubt that there was such a design, and their ministers were well able, by deduction from a handful of principles, to make it rational and coherent. 

The situation we are presently in is much different, and I would even say, sadder and more confusing, and possibly more mysterious.  It is the shuffled deck of cards.  Today, there is no consistent, integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on which our edifice of belief rests.  Therefore, in a sense, we are more naïve than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we can be made to believe almost anything.  The feet of cloned turkeys makes as much or more sense than evolution.  Now in a way, none of this is our fault.  When Galileo turned his telescope towards the heavens, Kepler looked as well.  They found no enchantment or authorization in the stars, only geometric patterns and equations.  God, it seemed was less of a moral philosopher than a master mathematician.  This discovery helped to drive the development of physics but did nothing but harm to theology.  Before Galileo and Kepler, it was possible to believe that the Earth was the stable center of the universe, and that God took special interest in our affairs.  Afterward, for many years, the Earth became little more than the third rock from the sun, and the comprehensible world of the Middle Ages began to unravel because people no longer saw in the stars the face of a Friend.   Of course had the Bible been rightly interpreted in the first place, and had proper hermeneutics been practiced, the people of the Middle Ages might have well known that the Earth and its inhabitants were not the physical center of the universe, but rather the center of God’s attention.  But there is something else that was once our friend that has turned against us.  I am referring to information.  There was a time when information was a resource that helped human beings to solve specific problems.  It is true that in the Middle Ages there was a scarcity of information but its scarcity made it both important and useful.  This changed with Gutenberg’s printing press.  Forty years after the invention, there were printing machines in 110 cities in six different countries; fifty years later, more than eight million books had been printed, almost all of them with information that had not previously been available to the average person.  But what started out as a sprinkle of liberation has turned into a flood of chaos.  Take the U.S. for example; in 1990 there were 260,000 large billboards; 11,520 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 movie rental stores; 362 million TV sets; and over 400 million home radios.  There were over 40,000 new books published every year (300,000 world-wide) and every day in America over 41 million photographs are taken.  That was in 1990, and it has only increased.  My point being that the majority of information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems. 

Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a medal to enhance one’s status.  It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness, and we are glutted with information, drowning in information.  We have no control over it and don’t know what to do with it.  And there are two reasons we don’t know what to do with it.  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 where we come from, or where we are going, or why.  Thus we don’t know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives.  Second; we have directed all of our energies and intelligence to inventing machinery and technology 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 how to properly use it, we simply soak it up and become information consumers, information junkies, who need our next fix.  I too stand guilty of this very addiction.

But lets draw back a moment and look at the big picture.  How many of the worlds problems are due to a lack of information?  Not a lack of knowledge, mind you, but a lack of information?  If a husband and wife are unhappy and divorce does it happen because of a lack of information or because of a lack of communication/commitment/honesty/faithfulness/ etc…?  I believe that most people will concede that what ails us, what causes us the most misery and pain, at both the societal and personal levels, has nothing to do with a lack of information.  Of course there may be some exceptions, but I am speaking about the whole.  Computers or any type of technology cannot provide an organizing moral framework.  They cannot tell us what questions are worth asking.  They cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here, or why we fight each other, or why decency eludes mankind so often.  Technology is in reality a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most need to confront, that being – spiritual emptiness, knowledge of our sinful state, usable conceptions of the past and future.  Can we blame technology for this?  Of course not, it is only machines, wires, chips, and cloned turkey feet.  But it is presented to us with trumpets blaring, as some sort of technological messiah.  We are told that technology makes education better (but test scores continue to drop), religion better (but less people attend church, and few have biblical understanding), politics better (please), our minds better (we have lost the ability to discern truth, we have lost the tools of logic, we are unable to process thoughts, and I could go on and on), and best of all – ourselves better (obesity is at an all time high, while social behavior is devolving rapidly, crime never seems to decline and we have kids beating up others and posting it on you tube).  This idea of making us better is of course nonsense, and only the young or ignorant could believe it.  But like I said, we can’t blame technology for our problems any more than we can blame a rock for being hard. 

But in a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer savvy operator is king.  But I am saying that all of this is a monumental waste of human talent and energy.  Imagine what might be accomplished if all of the people who play World of Warcraft would instead not sit in front of their computers for who knows how many hours at a time, but instead use that time to volunteer at a local homeless shelter.  Imagine if all the people who spend hours of time looking up the latest stats of football players so that they might draft the best players for their fantasy football league instead took that time and focused on philosophy or the arts.  Imagine if all the people who take hours to make their myspace page “just right” would instead take that time to mentor a troubled youth?  Imagine what would happen if all the people who spend hours watching Grey’s Anatomy, or American Idol, or whatever television show you watch, would instead devote that time to actual learning, or a community project, or to imaginative literature, or to educational endeavors, or to spending quality time with their families, or to something… anything constructive?  Who knows what we could learn and achieve.  Maybe we could learn exactly why hunger is such a world wide issue, maybe we could learn why there are certain mental illnesses, maybe we could discover the cure for cancer, or AIDS, maybe we could seriously resolve the conflict between Muslims and the rest of the world.  Who knows?

Information is not a bad thing if properly used and acted upon.  It is a horrible thing if we are simply gaining information for information’s sake.  We should evaluate the information we are taking in and ask ourselves what are we doing with it?  Are we taking in this information so that we might share it with others?  And if so, we must ask ourselves why?  Is it so that we might appear knowledgeable?  Or are we actually hoping to sway an opinion and inform the masses so that a better decision might be reached?  Are we simply sharing it, or acting upon it ourselves?  Another question that I might ask is, when we actually come across good information do we simply discard it because it does not fit into our world view, or do we discard it because it requires something of us, possibly like moving out of a comfort zone, or repentance, or perhaps making a life changing decision…  Do we not acquire “good” information (good meaning reputable, logical and intelligent) because it would take too much time for us to do so, time that we would rather spend on some meaningless activity, or time we would rather spend on gaining useless information?  Or do we not acquire it because of what it requires of us?

Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us, “All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.”  Here is what Socrates told us, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Here is what the prophet Micah told us, “What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”  Here is what James told us, “Faith without works is dead.”  Here is what Paul told us, quoting the Old Testament, “There are none righteous, no not one.”  The human dilemma is not a lack of information, and we solve nothing by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.  The heart of the human problem is the problem with the human heart and all the wonders of technology have done is helped us to ignore that problem.  It is a drug of sorts.  A tool we use to take our mind off of our human nature.  Yes we can use it to discover the problems of humanity, but then what?  Here is what Jesus told us, “Why do you call me Lord, yet you do not do the things I have told you?” 

When I was a kid I grew up in the country.  It was a wonderful life.  We just so happened to live near a small river (some might call it a creek), and we would swim in that river every summer, and ice skate on it nearly every winter (without the ice skates).  But occasionally we would have beavers move in and I’m sure you all know what beavers do… they build dams.  A dam stops the flow of water.  The beavers would build a dam in hopes that the water would collect in one place so that they might build a nest in the center of the pond that was formed.  But something else happens when the flow of water stops and that is; the once thriving river, over time, becomes a stagnant pond.  If left stagnant for a period of time, things begin to die, because things need fresh, flowing water.  I think people are the same way; we become stagnant if we have no outflow.  We soak up information, and soak up information, and soak up information, and we never release it, which in turn causes us to become stagnant.  We are informing ourselves to death. 

Orwell feared those who would ban books.  Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban books, because there wouldn’t be anyone who wanted to read them.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and apathy.  Orwell feared that the truth would be hidden, while Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture preoccupied with feeling good (hedonism).  Huxley stated in Brave New World Revisited that the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.”  In Orwell’s 1984 people were controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.  And yet it is Orwell’s 1984 that seems to be the reference source for those that would have America “wake up!” when it is Huxley’s Brave New World that has come to fruition. 

Regardless, it is doubtful that we could get anyone to read either of these classics today, and if we did, it would probably just float into that stagnant pond of stored information and never be acted upon, or allowed to bring us to a point where we must deal with something uncomfortable.  Mine was the last generation to grow up without internet.  I did not get online until the mid 90’s, after I had reached adulthood as defined by law.  My wife, who is a bit younger than I (we won’t say how much younger) grew up with computers.  Needless to say I’ve adapted quite well, too well, but the question now becomes, with all that I have just written, all of this “information” what will I now do with it?  Will it pool in the stagnant information storage pond, or will I actually practice what I have preached?  Time will tell, but until then, have you heard the latest news?

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