libraries | play | information | media | policy | culture

2009-01-08

Fear and Loathing in 2009

December is the Playfullest month. But for bloggers it's the cruelest month, what with end-of-year deadlines and seasonal festivities keeping us away from the warm glow of our monitors.

Thus, it seems appropriate to recover from too much eggnog by facing the uncertainties that the coming year brings. And don't these uncertainties—a faltering economy, the continued shadow of terrorism, political instability in the Middle East, and a new president who is at least physically unlike any other prior resident of the White House—seem a little scarier than any of the other uncertainties the still-living generations have faced? Somehow the Cold War, a nuclear threat, and the graffiti-filled subways of 1970s New York City just don't stack up to the present, right?

The novelist Douglas Coupland explores this phenomenon in an op-ed for yesterday's Globe and Mail and concludes that the real difference between then and now is digital media:

Marshall McLuhan tells us that "terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it, everything affects everything all the time." What he perhaps didn't foresee was that terror didn't turn out to be Winston Smith's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Terror turned out to be a friend's grandmother bingeing on conspiracy websites during a late-night browsing jag, triggering days of pension freak-out e-mails with her daughter, Sarah, down in Human Resources, who then installs a real-time Dow Jones ticker widget in the top right-hand corner of her work screen, and when Sarah goes home, she and her husband browse online real-estate listings wondering when the bottom's going to hit.
In other words: information overload.

We have all the information we could ever want—and certainly more than we could ever need or handle—at our finger tips all the time every time. Yet this seeming wealth is also the cause of a deficit: in perspective, in certainty.

And even as digital communication creates this wealth with its brutally efficient ability to disseminate information, it is rendering whole species of cultural and informational curators—writers and editors and librarians—less relevant in the collective public mind just when the public needs them most.

1 comment:

steve said...

The 1984 reference is an interesting one. After all, Winston Smith’s job made him a small part of the governmental machine which controlled information. Of course, that only works if your stream of information comes from one source. In the world of 1948, that was perfectly plausible to George Orwell. But long before the actual year of 1984, there were people who predicted that the tyranny Orwell outlined would not come from one Big Brother but from millions of Little Brothers. (Societies such as North Korea not withstanding).

The terror that PL refers to in our daily lives has always been manipulated and fashioned by people who dispense information. Some do it for their own self interests, some do it because the feel that they are promoting a “greater” societal good. By coincidence, as I write this, I am watching a news story regarding a medication which has been widely promoted to be a great leap forward in preventing certain types of cancer. This has been accepted by the public and by some State legislatures as fact, resulting in widespread inoculation campaigns. Never mind the fact that the scientific data and the statistics make the claim highly doubtful. Public relations and advertising will always win out over fact.

We can see millions of examples of similar issues where “common knowledge” was not consistent with fact: political campaigns, public health, international relations, etc. Is this all due to information overload? Maybe. I think it is more likely that it is due to the lack of an objective frame of reference. We live in a world where everyone’s statement is considered an “opinion” rather than a statement of fact. Therefore everyone’s statement is equal to everyone else’s statement, even if it is simply not consistent with the facts. Cable “news” programs become propaganda machines – pick the one you want to believe. Newspapers (does anyone remember them?) of long standing reputation are assaulted and reviled. Internet news sites are openly and proudly partisan.

This is not a situation which is peculiar to the modern age. Consider the role played by nongovernmental sources in the Spanish American War, World War I, the American Revolution, the New York draft riots, Amerindian relations in the 1800s, etc. Consider that the famous “protocols of the elders of zion” is still widely sold. (Admittedly, the latter may have been from a governmental source originally, when the Czar was still in power in Russia). Lists of this kind of stuff are endless.

I have heard people say that the way to fight bad information is with more information. Perhaps so. But as PL points out, the amount of information available to us is beyond imagining. Great. So now you have 6 billion web hits regarding your topic. But where can you go for an objective analysis? Whom do you believe? Where does the “friend’s grandmother” go to find out if Bernie Madoff is really sending her emails from Nigeria full of anthrax? I don’t know. Maybe, like most people, she should just wait for the jokes on the late night talk shows to sort it all out for her.