While reading chapter 5 today, I made an interesting connection between my own life and the words of Postman which, in turn, became a hypothesis, and then something that had taken more the form of a theory. It shocked me to realize that this quasi-theory may be the answer to something I'd wondered about for a long, long time.
Postman makes it very clear, in chapter 5, that the development of the telegraph abolished space, allowing people to communicate regardless of the distance separating them. Information that used to take days to relay was then able to be shared in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, and without a journey, arduous or otherwise. This was the catalyst for the information age that we now live in, as it spread information widely and in plenty. Too much plenty, if such a statement is not awfully redundant. Postman also postulates that this lead to the bulk of available information being trivial, but for now I want to focus on the sheer amount of it.
I have found myself, in recent years, feeling that the world is too complex, that there is entirely too much to do, too much to learn, too many people to talk to, and too much work to do. How is one supposed to achieve anything, make even a dent in such a checklist and aspiring trophy of a life? This feeling has the effect of making me, and possibly others, feel utterly insignificant, and even sometimes inferior. With so many accomplished people around, and so little experience under our belts, it is easy to belittle ourselves. Information surplus may very well be the inciting force of this feeling.
We now have more information at our fingertips than we have ever had before. The internet, television, and even a phone call from our friend in Colorado present us with news, all combining to put our minds into overload. I know that this is true for me, and I expect it is for some others, if not many. This amount of news can be discouraging or overwhelming, and sometimes makes me want to close myself off for awhile, take in one thing at a time, and just achieve what I can. I don't like knowing everything about the world because it intimidates me and, I feel, stifles my self esteem and, therefore my ability to accomplish what I want to. At times, I wonder if, before the telegraph, people were mostly content and comfortable with themselves and their way of living, and if so, if it was simply because they didn't know any better.
One thing that Postman adds to this concept of information surplus upon the creation of the telegraph is the concept of the "information-action ratio." This is the idea that creating such excess of information caused people to know much more than they knew what to do with. Before that point, the things they heard and learned were mostly things that were relevant to them, things that they could use in daily life or that benefitted them somehow. Now, most of what we learn is just useless information, throwaway knowledge. Postman quotes Coleridge's metaphor of "water everywhere without a drop to drink." I believe this also plays into my hypothesis of too much knowledge making a person feel small. If most of what we know is unusable, would this not also make us feel small and ignorant, and our knowledge of the world insufficient? Our "information-action ratio" is sorely unbalanced, causing us to use little of the knowledge we contain. How demeaning might it be to attempt to make a difference or to further oneself, realizing in the process that we are much more ignorant than we formerly thought?
I found chapter 5 extremely interesting because of these concepts and how they related to me. It's left me wondering, does it relate to any of you in the same way? Have you experienced this same phenomenon of feeling small and useless due to the over-availability of knowledge and the irrelevance of much of it to your own life? In what other ways has this surplus affected you? I am extremely interested to know.