Information is garbage

I’ve been reading a lot of Neil Postman lately. It’s been one of those years and I’m writing a book about fake news. Postman, the nicest guy in cultural criticism, was a folksy, friendly thinker who imagined the future in which we now live. One of his most important points, made in 1992 before the true data deluge that now befuddles us, is that information has become garbage.

He wrote:

In the United States, we have 260,000 billboards; 11,250 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 video outlets for renting video tapes; more than 500 million radios; and more than 100 million computers. Ninety-eight percent of American homes have a television set; more than half our homes have more than one. There are 40,000 new book titles published every year (300,000 worldwide), and every day in America 41 million photographs are taken. And if this is not enough, more than 60 billion pieces of junk mail (thanks to computer technology) find their way into our mail-boxes every year.

From millions of sources all over the globe, through every possible channel and medium — light waves, airwaves, ticker tapes, computer banks, telephone wires, television cables, satellites, printing presses — information pours in. Behind it, in every imaginable form of storage — on paper, on video and audio tape, on discs, film, and silicon chips — is an ever greater volume of information waiting to be retrieved. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we are awash in information. And all the sorcerer has left us is a broom.

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.

First, let’s address the fact that we exist in a post-information age. The Information Age, which I posit began as early as the late 1800s and stopped at the introduction of the first home computers, was based on the precept that information was power. All of the professions, from politics to legal to medical, were created on a bedrock of difficult-to-obtain experience and education and the recording and storage of important bureaucratic information was the method of control. The quantification of life, from actuarial tables to eugenics, gave numbers the power over life and death.

Information was valuable and starkly delineated our lives. In the Information Age there was no room for gray, just black and white. We wrote bits of data into little fields on paper and then into massive mainframes. We were dissected by numbers, defined by our SSNs or the numbers tattooed to our arms. We were ground up by indifference rather than anger and we had no recourse because the computer said we were wrong.

This drive to build true computing machinery reached its apex in the 1980s when programming became the arbiter of fairness. If the computer said it was true then it was. This is even reflected in the most popular computer systems of the day – FORTRAN programs, batch jobs, and VAX. These were iron-clad user interfaces designed to allow an adept few control the flow of information. These were machines suited to a few specific purposes and if you wanted to do something new you bought a new machine. This served us well until the true rise of popular general-purpose computing cut down Big Blue and its big iron like a tsunami.

And tsunami is an apt description of what we now face. We all generate and consume information on countless screens. Information is now free-form. It’s evident in our move away from formalized data stores into call-and-response APIs. It’s evident in our information-gathering habits – now more a process of grazing than a formal process of gathering. And it’s evident in our media which now comes at us with a force unmatched in history. The world around us wants to offer us all the information all the time and we have no time to assess what is true, what is not, and, most important, what is valuable.

Postman saw this coming. He saw the rise of USA Today, the junk food of newspapers. He saw cable news’ “And now..” problem (“The French military general believes war with the United States is inevitable… and now sports.”) He saw the rise of a populace that couldn’t take this all in. What he didn’t foresee was the rise of tools like Facebook and blogging that added to the trash fire of information. I realize the irony of writing this diatribe on a blog but them’s the breaks.

In short, information has become so plentiful that it became disposable. And now we reap a fetid crop from those fields. The future is not a boot smashing a face, forever, per Orwell. It’s best and softest slippers sold endlessly on our Facebook feeds, per Aldous Huxley.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one,” wrote Postman. “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared 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.”

We need a Postman for this post-information age. We need to give our children an education in sussing out the important information. We need to reduce multi-tasking. The average American adult spends 74 hours per week watching screens. We need to make those hours count.

I think new user interfaces aimed at how the human mind truly consumes information will cause a major shift in our media consumption. When we receive aural and visual information as we move through the world and when we can receive them without holding a slab of glass in our hands the importance of what we see and when we see it will become clear. Perhaps we will enter a new Information Age, but one defined by our own needs and delineated by the narrow parameters of our lives. If I’m seeing an AR news feed in my peripheral vision I want pertinent news blips – stock prices, local happenings, international incidents – and not so much info on the Kardashians. That’s the dream, anyway. The reality will be less like the draconian information control of 1984 and more like a distracting bath of soft-focus information lapping over us like water in some Tahitian lagoon. And we’ll love it.

“We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms,” wrote Postman twenty years ago. I wonder what he’d make of our friend these days.