"Information" Overload

Somebody made the mistake of asking me to comment on a transcript of a talk that Neil Postman delivered in 1990, on the subject of information glut. This was my email response:

You probably didn't know that Neil Postman provided me with a seminal framework for dealing with such things as media overload. I read his book Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1987 and have remembered it ever since. His point there was similar to the point made in this 1990 address: all information is not created equal. Much of the noise that passes for informed discourse is simply irrelevant, though most folks have a knee-jerk aversion to actually saying so. "News" can be created at will ex nihilo with the proper techniques. For instance, last Sunday's paper featured an article about climate experts advising the Administration on global warming. The article, claiming to be news, was actually as tendentious a screed for one particular viewpoint as anything on the editorial page of the Village Voice could be. But in fact, all the writer did was to report, as news, that this scientist says thus, and that scientist agrees, etc. Now I happen to know that although scientists do say "x", it is a fact that other scientists say "not-x", and even more would not care to offer an opinion. But by reporting as news just those [things] which fit the particular wishes of the writer, high-pressure advocacy can be disguised as factual reporting. With guidance from Postman and others like him, I have practiced noticing and discounting such stuff within seconds of seeing it. But I have little hope that anybody else is doing so.

Postman puts out a challenge to look at what is really important for us to know. In his book, he demonstrated that casual news consumers eventually become stuffed with information about things they can never affect: Mideast peace, Sahel famine, and that. Too much of this and you get a sense of being powerless to do anything for good or evil; in effect, you become irrelevant in your own universe. Besides, this mental static draws your attention away from the things you can and do affect, and the results are not good. ( I saw a cartoon gag panel showing a woman visiting her husband in prison. They were on opposite sides of the glass panel; he had his nose in the newspaper, and she was saying, "You haven't changed!" )

Postman stops a little short of saying that all this technology is actually bad. ( Useless, could that be what he meant? ) If I remember rightly, in his book he was very positive about the effects of the printing press, at any rate as compared with the effects of television. Print demands more activity from the reader, who is called upon to understand and judge what is being said. TV just demands a sort of mindless presence. I should be a little more precise: the use of print as an outlet for irrelevant information transmitted by telegraph is partially open to the same charges as is television. It was a way station from one to the other, as I remember.

After reading Postman, I went on to some of his sources; Jacques Ellul in particular. ( Never could get the hang of McLuhan! ) And that's where I really got into trouble. Ellul convinced me that it really is not possible to present the Gospel through the television, because the medium itself undercuts the message. I won't go into exactly how it does [that] here, except to say that I now believe that the charge applies, to a significant degree, to radio and other forms of mass communication, including even, or especially, these boxes of switches with which we spend so much of our lives. I don't talk about this much because this is high treason in some quarters.

To be sure, technology has its uses. One is to be a foundation for more technology. Oh, yes, and for fun and profit. I may not get as much profit out of playing the piano or petting the cat, but fun is available everywhere. Besides, there's plenty more to life than even that.

Meanwhile, I go stack z's.

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