Information overload and the loss of meaning…

One drawback I see in our ability to communicate faster than ever before is that we have become lazy about our language. A word or phrase will suddenly pop up everywhere, and we tend to pick it up and repeat it without really questioning what it means or how it’s being used. See, for example, the term deep state, which I had never heard before a couple of weeks ago but now seem to see all over the place. By using and reusing this term without really interrogating it, we lend credence to it. Without being aware of it, something that was just an idea or a concept becomes objective reality. (For more on this fascinating phenomenon and how it infects our thinking, see this article.)

There is a pervasive sense now that writing of all kinds should be done quickly and published as soon as possible to maximize virality. I’m guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I have a hard time now taking my time with my writing, putting my energy into longer pieces, and crafting them to communicate my thoughts as precisely as possible. The medium of blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets reward the hastily composed post and the quick trigger finger when it comes to clicking “Publish.” Even with this post right now, I am scribbling my initial thoughts and planning to publish what amounts to a rough draft.

This is what we’ve come to expect from blogs and other online writing, and I find that I consume it in the same way it was written: as quickly as possible, without pause to reflect on what the author is actually saying. Web writing is quick to produce, quick to consume, and if I may be crude about it, quite often amounts to a gigantic mound of shit.

My challenge to myself, and to you, is to question the language that constantly swirls around us. Instead of skimming a report or story, read it word by word and try to parse the writer’s exact meaning. (Often you will find that you can’t pin down that meaning because the writing is lazy or purposely obfuscating, and therefore untrustworthy.) Read the story in print instead of on the computer screen and see if that makes a difference. Write down words or phrases whose meanings you can’t quite pin down and look them up–is the writer using them in accordance with their accepted definitions?

Being bombarded by so much rapid-fire information has led to a kind of paralysis. It has become more difficult to determine what is fact and what is hyperbole and what is propaganda and what is advertisement. It’s like walking down a grocery-store aisle and freezing when presented with a thousand different options for hand lotion or breakfast cereal–which is the best choice? Or are they all essentially the same?

The best strategy for dealing with overwhelming amounts of information may be similar to that for dealing with too much stuff: consume less and focus on the quality of what we do take in.

Too much information?

At left in the foreground, a printer removes a...

There is no doubt about it — we are living in an information Golden Age. In just a matter of minutes, and assuming my computer and Internet connection are working, I can find the top news stories of the day, plus analysis and commentary; I can research almost any question I have; I can read opinions on pretty much any subject; I can watch videos, view art and listen to music, all with a click.

But is it all too much for us to cope with? I’m reading a fascinating book about the history of science: Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris. He describes how the invention of the printing press put books that were once extremely difficult to obtain into nearly every university, library and even some homes. Just as importantly, the accuracy and consistency of those books became much more reliable because they were no longer copied out by hand. As a result, science experienced a boom time, because scientists could finally easily read, study and build on each other’s ideas and data.

The development of the Internet, I think, will carry us into another boom time, if it hasn’t already begun. Not since the invention of the printing press has it been so easy to share information and build on what we already know. I don’t think it’s possible to have too much information. Information inevitably leads to innovation and progress. (That’s why it is so often suppressed.)

Internets = Parody motivator.

Image via Wikipedia

However, we have to change our habits when it comes to dealing with this unending flow of information, just as readers and publishers had to in the Renaissance following the invention of the printing press. It is no longer sufficient to be a passive receiver, even if you are not a scientist, but are a mere consumer of information. And content producers can no longer be one-way broadcasters of mass media, pushing content out to the lowest common denominator.

Rather, we must cultivate our sense of discernment, our ability to analyze, our critical thinking skills. We must be more willing to challenge what we read, see and hear on the Internet. We also must actively cull our incoming information flow, constantly editing our content stream so that it best serves our needs. I didn’t learn these skills in school; I don’t think many of my generation did. But they may (and should) be taught to my son.

I have had to learn for myself how to direct the fire hose of information. I have found this challenging and exciting, especially as I have watched the rise of social networks and seen how others engage in commentary and sharing. We are all helping one another to learn. We no longer rely on experts; each one of us can be consumer, publisher, analyst and critic of information.

My son is only three years old, but already I can see that he is unwilling to act as a passive receiver of information. Television cannot hold his attention when the computer beckons. What has been a challenging learning experience for me will probably be second nature to him.

I think it’s a waste of time to wonder if there is too much information available to us today. There is clearly no such thing as “too much information.” Human beings thrive on information, and if our species can be said to have a common purpose, it has been to increase our knowledge, to explore and discover. We will figure out how to better use these tools that we’ve invented. Our ability to adapt is one of our strengths, after all. But best of all, we will progress. With all of this information at our disposal, I don’t think we’ll be able to help it.