Too Much Information. We’re not just swimming in it – we’re soaking in it.
I’ve long held the notion that children in the United States would do better in school if they just had the confidence to believe they could in fact understand things. Instead, in my humble opinion, they are psyched out by the overload of data that envelopes us all. And if you can’t possibly keep up with all that stuff that’s already happened, then how can you ever be hip to the now?
I’m going to break this meme up, because I see where TMI is warping our sensibilities at two different levels – macro and micro. As I finish those particular essays, I’ll link across to them.
At the micro level, TMI strikes us in two ways: inbound and outbound. Outbound, we obsess about ourselves, and are willing to share anything and everything about us because that’s the only way we can be heard above the din. Additionally, we get so enamored with the endless variety of trees, we not only miss the forest – the forest is burning! We’ve allowed these trivial pursuits to pollute our thinking. If a little information is a good thing, then by all means let’s pile on more! Our worship for detail has diverted our appreciation for small truth, undiluted. We can’t write a short, clear sentence anymore. Inbound, we stream tickers and surround ourselves with a river of news, because it makes us seem in touch with the things we aren’t reading. We feel important because of our proximity to the information, and are tickled that it is available.
At the macro level, our institutions are continuing to focus on ever smaller units of time. Significance is placed on the tipping points, and not on the years of leaning and shoving that got us to that equilibrium. Context is all but gone in modern reporting.
Take the Dow Jones and NASDAQ for example. There were people, years ago, who got the daily newspaper just to see what the stocks had done yesterday. Those with significant investments couldn’t wait that long, and had special devices installed that would automate the information in something approximating real time. When computers starting becoming ubiquitous, a younger Michael Bloomberg changed the platform of the ticker, made a billion dollars with his service, and now is able to run for President if he so chooses. Where we used to look at trends and natural flow, we now react and jump to spikes and dips, as if there were any legitimate explanation other than random events and non-linear dynamics.
All I know is that in my former career, if we ever had a 200-300 point drop in the Dow, we’d invariably have a producer waving arms in the air, scrambling us at DefCon 5 across town to find a stockbroker, so we could “tell people what they need to do with their 401-Ks.” I had a suggestion. “How about we tell them to increase their investment percentage. If stock prices are lower, they’ll be in a better position for a rebound.” Naturally, I was usually met with stares, as they looked for someone more “normal” to assign the story to. As you can imagine, I also gave up on trying to pitch the Dollar Cost Average Explainer piece.
It’s not enough that we swim in Too Much Information — both in the forests and in the trees. When all you had was a daily newscast, you had 24 hours to digest an event and place it in context. When there were several newscasts in a day, you had a matter of hours to discern, divine, and divulge the truth. Now the clock never stops, and it’s a matter of pure regurgitation. Since every event now carries the significance and weight of being “Now,” we have no choice but to treat all moments as being equal.
I really like the news philosophy of John Stossel, who feels important news happens slowly:
“We do the worst on the slower stories. Most of the important things that happen… are, I think, the slow developments: the development of the computer chip, the way Hewlett-Packard was run, the invention of the birth-control pill, the sexual revolution, changing attitudes. Those things don’t happen today; they happen this month, this year. We do a bad job covering that.”
Lest you think this is a new threat, that quote was first published in April 1997. We’ve always been tempted by the lure of Too Much Information. It’s just that now we have ever more opportunities to drown ourselves in it.