Information vs. Distraction (Part 1)

In a recent commencement speech to the graduating class at Hampton University in Virginia, President Obama told students:

“You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads, Xboxes and PlayStations … information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than a means of emancipation”.

Reaction to this statement ran the gamut from right-wing political bloggers saying it was an attack on free speech to techies saying the Prez was dissing all the cool tools people use to download their daily dose of entertainment. My own view is that it was an expression of concern about our ability to remain informed in the face of overwhelming flows of data.

It’s certainly hard not to notice the sheer volume of information these new technologies make available to the average person. A recent study from the University of California, San Diego estimates that the typical American consumes more than 34 gigabytes of non-work-related data every day — an increase of over 350% since 1980. A similar report by IDC states that the total amount of digital information available will increase by a factor of 44 over the next decade. Other sources tell essentially the same story: we are swimming in a sea of data and the water is still rising.

But is this really such a bad thing? As long as you can make sense of the information being presented, the volume of data is irrelevant. It is only when you can’t process the data that it becomes a problem. Futurist Alvin Toffler called this information overload and suggested that it was a symptom of the huge structural changes occurring in modern society.

In his address to Web 2.0 Expo NY, however, Clay Shirky made the argument that information overload has been with us ever since the advent of moveable type. He theorizes that it was only the financial costs of operating a printing press (or radio station or TV network) that imposed a natural filter on the quality and distribution of content. By the very nature of their business models, these media gatekeepers had to restrict and edit information so that their audiences would be willing to pay for it and they could make a profit. With the rise of computers and the Internet, these “natural” filters are gone. Today, there is simply no economic reason to screen anything out and the onus of filtering content has shifted to the individual.

I think this is where President Obama’s warning is directed. It’s not so much about controlling the information at the front end (which is what spooked a few folks in the blogosphere), it’s about managing data in our own everyday lives.

I’ll try and address some of these coping strategies in Part 2 of this article.

“And with Ipods and Ipads; and Xboxes and Playstations—-none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than a means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and our democracy”.
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