Monday, February 4, 2013

Drowning in the Sea of Information: Does Information Surplus Intimidate us?

    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.


  1. I do believe that today's society must be filled with more useless information now more than ever, and that pile of junk will continue to grow regardless. We cannot contain the spread and growth of useless information, because it's like a spreading virus. ( I guess that's why they call those stupid and popular YouTube videos 'viral') However, I do believe that there are gems, glimmers of greatness within our junk. After all, some of the best things we have today are our junk. So, yes, there is plenty of undrinkable water in our polluted rivers. Yet, at least there is still water in the river, and it's not completely acidic.

  2. Strangely, I had a thought about having more time in the day to accomplish more things. By the time 7PM rolls around, I have barely begun my homework for the next day. The weekend slides by without a single hello these days. How nice it would be to set aside more time in a 30 hour day for relaxation, recooperation, and even sleep. It was a trivial thought as I was dozing off the sleep one night. Then, I thought about how more hours in the day would just mean more work. We cram more things into our lives than we need to at times. It's hard to step back and say no to lunch with a friend, attending an event or meeting, or the surprise chats in the middle of the hallway in between classes.

    In an effort for my brain to want more rest, it would be impossible. We as humans are willing to cram more into our day as we are into our minds. The more information the better, right? We're taught to gain as much knowledge, learn as many skills, as fast as possible in order to become the best. It's a misleading concept. Being a human encyclopedia is not an ability; it's a rare commodity to have. It's not for everyone. Because we want to know so much, we do filter and sift through the "junk" information along the way.

    To go back to the actual post, I would say there is an enormous amount of information to undertake. I would say it's there for us a selection. We choose what to read or see or understand. It's just there to choose from. We don't have to know all of it.

    As far as some information being "junk" it really depends on the individual. If a person can make a living, a substantial living just from shooting a video of themselves each day and uploading it to Youtube, there's information out there for them to use. The market is ever changing on what's considered useful or not. Whether we still deem videos stupid or not, we still watch them don't we? We are still contributing by watching stupidity. No information is junk unless it's just not being accessed.

  3. I found Postman's concept of the "information-action ratio" to be very interesting. I've never drawn an explicit relationship between the information we receive and our ability to act on it. I've accepted early on that it's impossible to act on every piece of information we're bombarded with. We would all go insane if we tried.

    I think it's natural to feel so little, especially since we're constantly reminded about the entire world's problems every day. The only thing that we can do is focus on the problems that we have control over. This thought may go without saying, but it's always nice to remind ourselves every once in a while.

  4. The first picture that came to mind as you described the vast knowledge available to us was of our galaxy in the middle of space. Everyone has had a moment where they look up at the night sky and think of how small they are and what else lies beyond the stars we can see. I connect those stars and that great unknown to the vastness of knowledge. Where I'm going with this is that we all feel small and insignificant in the universe just as we do with this vast assortment of knowledge. So what we need to do is not think about the uselessness, but to put our knowledge to use; we need to use this information somehow. You ask the question "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?" We just need to realize that we don't and CAN'T know everything, so we just make an effort to do what we can with what we have.

  5. I know there are times when I do think about how I am just a small spec of sand in a beach shore by the ocean. It is incredible how at times how small you can feel or how dumb you can feel when it comes to the vastness of knowledge that is out there for us and how other people uses it compared to you. Now when I say knowledge I am mainly talking about the knowledge I would categorize under the “brilliant” section of what I wish I knew. But personally I hardly use that category and instead filled with a lot of useless information that have no relevance to my life. My older brothers like to make fun of me because they can ask me about any actor or actress they know I’ve seen and ask me the celebrity’s name or birthday and I will more than likely know because I looked it up at one point in time. But there is no relevance to my life who a celebrity is or when their birthday is unless it is to talk to someone like my brother about it. I feel it is stuff like this that our world is teaching the younger generation in a huge way and that will affect us in ways that we (or at least me) can’t understand until it happens.

  6. I typically take a passive approach and try not to let the overwhelming overwhelm me. We know so much, and most of us being good people, want to do everything we can to help others and at the same time be successful ourselves. I think it's important to remember that there isn't a single person on the planet that can handle every piece of information in existence being thrown at them and effectively take care of each problem or issue represented by that information. One piece at a time is often enough.

  7. I'm not sure if I feel useless but I have noticed that I compare myself and my life with others on Facebook. That's probably the most relevant epiphany that I've had with technology effecting my life. I think people tend to get too involved with certain information - i.e. celebrities, sports figures etc. Plus, technology I think takes up a lot of our time- so then when we actually stop using it we may feel disconnected from society.