Information Glut and the Loss of Meaning
What I wish to do is synthesize three works of Neil Postman, these being: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business; Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology; and Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. These three share some common threads that are highly relevant and increasingly so as time goes on. There are three parts to the argument: the first is explaining the problem of our times, the second is how this came to be and how it is propagated, the final part is what we can do about it, and where do can go from there. So what is the problem? The problem is the malaise of modernity, i.e., – I am sure many feel this intuitively – there is an existential angst that marks our period in history. Many can explain this away in pseudo-aphorisms such as there is no more meaning, and nothing left to be said. Or framed in a nihilistic frame, everything has been done and it is all pointless. These are not explanations but reflections, or feelings, of those who hold such views; they are symptomatic and not causal.
According to Neil Postman this anomie is a direct result of certain technologies and a subsequent collapse of Grand Narratives with which we can subsume our lives. Technology is a sort of synecdoche of the Grand Narrative (or zeitgeist if you will) of our times. This narrative once gave us purpose and meaning, this narrative is the one of progress. As it should be obvious to most, this narrative is coming into question and unraveling as we reach both psychological – and I would argue – ecological limits. What do I mean by progress? Progress is characterized in economic and technological terms, which is the belief in infinite growth and the innovation that will spur it. However, Postman argues that we are at a precipice in history, and we are looking over into the abyss, for “we have all become existentialists, which lays upon us responsibilities that once were shared by God and history.” This is what is meant when people talk about post-modernism, we have an evacuation of meaning necessitating a need to decide our path. However there is no looking forward as the future is yet to be and is a blank slate. Rather we must look backward at our collective rich history and choose the best the past has to offer and carry it into the future. That is the simplified version, but there are pitfalls and caveats we must hold in mind as we attempt to do so.
What is meant when I say and talk of a grand narrative? It is the ontological scaffolding that defines and limits beliefs and behavior. While I use the term ontology, I do not mean it in its strict literal sense. This undergirds and enables meaning and purpose in our lives, and it does not have to be true, it only needs to serve its function. The function is to “give organization and meaning to our world – a story of transcendence and mythic power.” It provides a context with which to evaluate and judge, “by narrative, I mean a story of human history that gives meaning to the past, explains the present, and provides guidance for the future.” Religion used to serve this function before the ideals and principles of the Enlightenment had taken root. These principles being rationalism, skepticism and the scientific method. While useful, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impotence they hold in giving us guidance. In short, we need a new narrative that provides us ontological security. While necessary there are some problems that need to be hedged against. To adopt something like, for example, religion and believe in it with one-hundred percent certainty has in the past lead to the Crusades. However the same rigid adoption of science has led to a belief in the science of eugenics which rationalized the Holocaust. Another example of science gone too far is the creation of the atomic bomb; to sum, we need to be careful where we tread.
Who would have thought that the three great transcendent narratives of this century would be fascism, nazism, and communism? Who would have thought weapons would be invented in a flash, could end all human life?
The narrative that characterizes our contemporary times is the one of Technopoly. This is Postman’s term for our age, which is comprised of faith in technology, scientism, and the idea of progress. Technopoly also has most importantly in it the problems of information glut and the absence of a transcending narrative. This condition has come about through a type of evolution of our culture and its use of tools. The order and typology is laid out like thus: “Cultures may be classified into three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies.” The first is simple, each tool is used for a certain purpose and the tool does not change or alter the thought process of the user. Whereas the transition phase to technopoly marks an important change, “In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture.” Social customs start to unravel at that stage, as technology bids to stand in for them. The final phase is where the tools gain a sort of autonomy as they essentially become the culture. That is, the tools instead of being driven by the needs and wishes of the user or inventor do the reverse. The user becomes an appendage to the tool if the user is not vigilant, then we end up with those needing to check Facebook or their email every half hour. There is no questioning of these consequences for there is a faith that technology is progress, and progress is good.
What is the underlying rational to progress? It is – evocatively – that we are “moving inexorably towards a more peaceful, intelligent, and commodious life for mankind.” We believe that innovation and technology will solve our problems, no matter how big or small. There is a taken for granted quality of our beliefs in technology, it has in essence gained a sacred character in such a way so that no one questions the underlying idea. To put it another way:
all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.
The greater implication to this blind faith is that we don’t consider where it is leading us, which I believe we are coming to realize as our faith is unraveled, is nowhere. Technology is an adjunct of science, which itself was born out of rationalism during the Enlightenment. This close cousin of technology is what Neil Postman terms scientism which is in modern times a source of moral authority. To qualify what is meant as moral authority, it provides a source to guide our behavior and endeavors, in the individual and the collective sense.
Scientism is an ideology that techniques could solve the problems of our day, and involve what can be called soft-technologies. These are things like bureaucracy, standardized tests, opinion polls, statistics and the filtering of big data. It emphasizes accuracy, precision and efficiency and tries to reduce the human experience down into numbers. Postman warns: “in Technopoly precise knowledge is preferred to truthful knowledge but than in any case Technopoly wishes to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity.” The implications are scary, the ideology of scientism subordinates the phenomenology of the human spirit and our quotidian experiences with the idea that if it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist or doesn’t count. This is a result of the adoption of such technologies, because any technology by its very nature is biased in its usage. This is what is being referred to with the saying that the medium is the message. A television for example while not precluding the possibility of being used as a bookshelf, is strongly biased against being used in such a way. The use of any technology effectively reduces possible actions and thought, yet this consequence is invisible to many who try to apply it inappropriately to solve new problems.
The new problem I speak of is the management of the information explosion that has occurred with the advent of the telegraph, and which has been exacerbated in contemporary times with the emergence of the internet and other communication technologies. The increased influx of information was a necessary precondition for our culture to become one of technopoly.
The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed.
The use of bureaucracy, institutions and the advent of statistics were meant to control information, but this seems to be failing. This is because of information glut, we are swimming in a sea of facts which we can attribute to our technology. “Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained.” The flood is causing confusion rather than coherence, it is undermining our capacities to exercise rational choice. This directly plays into the hand of our reliance on technology, for it is omnipresent, stable and continuous, it gives something to fall back on and believe in. It is easy to witness this occurring, in a line up with young adults one can see that many fall into their cellphones. Technology as a surrogate for coherence and meaning ultimately plays out poorly. Many doing so may be attempting to escape the mundane or to escape their own thoughts. I think the deeper issue is the need and the search for meaning which is undermined by our technologies. Technology as an escape valve does nothing to address the underlying issue and in fact indirectly reinforces it.
The alternative to falling into the traps of technopoly is to piece together given information into a coherent whole, so as to enable meaningful action. As Postman states: “information derives its importance from the possibilities of action,” or what can be called the information-action ratio. However there is a second issue with information besides the large amount of it all. It is not just the quantity of information but the quality of information that is also at issue. Lamenting, Neil Postman said that “television is altering the meaning of being informed by creating a species of information that might be properly be called disinformation.” This kind of information is characterized by it being one or all of the following: misleading, misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented and superficial. This understandably leads many to misconstrue the important and the trivial in the process of creating their view of the world. By falling onto technology as the arbiter of truth and knowledge also ignores their latent bias. To give up personal control to our tools is to become subjugated by them; we risk becoming dependent and controlled by them. Each technology is unique in that it defines possible and impossible thought and behavior; they have an epistemological agenda.
Speaking before the internet had become ubiquitous in North America an example of this problem was summed up as such:
TV will make content so abundantly available, context be damned, that we’ll be overwhelmed by ‘information glut’ until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we’ve lost as long as we’re being amused.
The television has at least in part redefined expectations of information in that it must be presented in a format that is entertaining. How this happened is beyond the scope of the paper, the important thing is that this has happened. I agree with the argument but I would add that it is not television alone anymore. It’s monopoly in this regard has been broken up with the widespread use of the internet, billboards and other media that is polluting our physical and mental landscapes. So we are becoming part of the epistemological agenda of the television, which has bled into other media. More importantly we are losing our ability to navigate and decipher our symbolic environments, it is becoming more difficult to separate the signals from the noise. As Postman puts it, “Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” This is exacerbated by advertisements, if technology is meant to solve problems, the question should arise of who defines what these problem are? Is it us, or is it more likely advertisers, marketers and entrepreneurs? The cognitive, mental and emotional strain on individuals from information makes them prey to manipulation and prone to falling for agendas other than their own. Most do not question that they need the newest widget or doodad, only that they need to acquire it because it represents progress, improvement, and it reflects hopes for a better life.
The overload of information and the subsequent over-reliance on technology has lessened personal capacity to judge rationally and navigate the world. The magic of advertisements is that they work because there is little to no rationality to most of them. Even though “it is the key to intelligence, if not sanity to be able to assess with some accuracy the extent to which words refer to the world of non-words.” It is difficult to separate truth from content when there no words at all. Advertisements work by emotional appeal by saying if you own such-and-such product you will be by association happier, cooler, more fulfilled. They are trying through a sleight-of-hand to sell you pseudo-parables; drink this beer and you’ll be as happy as this guy (as he is surrounded by friends, and those of the opposite sex). Like all technologies, advertisements are biased and have an agenda, “what the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong with the buyer.” It is no longer left to us to judge the merits of a product or the information that is presented to us, but the burden now lies on the marketer. Prepositions are being asserted without the use of words about the consumer, which the consumer finds difficult to allay themselves against. With the constant bombardment of advertisements they start to feel maybe what they are implying is true, and that is the hook that drives the market. This would not be possible in a culture without information-glut that causes confusion and I would say further, psychic desolation. It is by putting us on tenuous ground that we prone to fall on the authority of the image, it is easier, it is a remedy, it is therapeutic.
This same principle works in the digital domain as well. For a digestible example I will refer to the image macro a sort of visual metaphor meant to communicate a message. Memes proliferate and there is an influx of images of essentially meaningless gibberish. This is the perfect example of de-contextualized information that Postman warned us about. It also demonstrates how the expectation that information must be entertaining has bled into other media environments. This can be dangerous for the naive, for “we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but why what it claims as significant.” If not taken in by a discerning eye, we risk taking what is presented as truth. How many times has a quote been misplaced into the mouth of another? How many hoaxes have spread across the internet? How many have you seen, that upon seeing an article from the satirical news website the Onion, take it as truth? This doesn’t just reflect blind faith and uncritical thinking but leads to the displacement of serious discourse and helps propagate myths, misinformation and disinformation. To be fair we need to remember that it is the information abundance which has engendered these consequences.
To recap, information and its degradation is the key issue of our times and is causing a myriad of problems. To summarize: information has become abundant, it has been transformed into a commodity and it is prone to distortion. It is causing confusion, enabling manipulation and displacing meaningful discourse. Postman tells us that the telegraph was the technology that started this process, for it was the telegraph that allowed the hasty transfer of information. “The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it.” This was the beginnings of an influx of information that would flood the dam. The commodification of information was soon to follow, for what purpose were are all these facts if we cannot act on them? The television allowed full expression of this consequence as news became transformed into infotainment. This is only a problem in-so-far as it co-opts serious modes of discourse and thought, for example if someone watched political satire (and only political satire) and believed themselves to be informed. Finally we have moved beyond the infotainment stage to one where information is both taken seriously and is nonsense. This is the distortion stage where information is passed along in a giant game of telephone through our communication technologies. This last point is exacerbated by the glut of information as well, for even academics don’t have time to sift through and verify all information. As is mentioned by Postman and his reference to the Alan Sokal affair with the journal Social Text. Sokal submitted a (literally) gibberish article that got accepted and was not discovered until he revealed it himself. Apparently, “they felt that gibberish is as good as any other form of discourse.”
This was enabled by computer technology and programs such as Sci-gen that produced academic articles that sounded good, but were actually meaningless. Standards for discourse is being degraded, and as we can see back with the memes example, rules for understanding and talking with each other is both being altered and fragmented. A meme may make little sense to some, but it makes sense for others who understand the memes syntax. However advocates of the computer, and specifically the internet, believed in the technology because there was a hope it would bring us together in common knowledge and understanding. The salience of this is suggested by Postman, “I have remained steadfast … the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.” By looking at these discourse tools, we see instead of communication technologies bringing people together, it is pulling them apart. One only need to look through a comments section of a partisan website, or take a peek into an internet chat-room. It usually doesn’t take long before you get bombarded with ignorance, and bellicosity if you disagree with the herd. This is because our communication and information technologies are enabling us to isolate ourselves in an epistemological bubble. Instead of integration we are instead rewarded with virtual gated communities.
This boxing off is exacerbated because “our brief attention span and our appetite for feel-good content can short-circuit any meaningful discourse.” This is not the fault of any one individual, as is implied by Postman’s criticism of the television. I think there can be an analogy made to the internet:
a perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied or, worst of all, endured.
It is easy to ignore information one finds unpleasant, to insulate yourself so that in the end, prejudice is internally reinforced and meaningful discussion shut down. This is antithetical to the idea of progress at least in the age of the Enlightenment. That age was one of skepticism to traditional orthodoxy, especially towards superstition and prejudice. As Kant said, the age was one where we “achieved our release from our self-imposed tutelage.” These are the unintended consequence of the expectation that information must be entertaining along with the enabling factors of the internet.
These were an illustration of the ramifications of technology we are all familiar with. There are parallel stories that can be said of many others, some favorites of Postman’s is the television and the telegraph. The point is there are always unpredictable side-effects of new inventions and technologies that go way beyond anything their creators could have imagined. The magnet allowed navigation of the globe that lead to the –quote, unquote– discovery of the New World. The telescope ultimately undermined religious authority and the idea of the geocentric universe. The clock enabled the standardized workday and was a necessary precedent before mass-production could be possible. The printing press put the Bible into every home, prodding the growth of literacy rates and making the reliance on religious authority to decipher unnecessary. What we need is to dis-embed our faith in technology and to see progress as being less determined by such.
Science as faith and innovation as progress has been the determining narrative driving our history, or so it was believed for a time. Responsibility was abdicated to the dictates of material progress and technical refinement. There were no real questions on what is to be done, instead we left it to innovators who may be more concerned with their own interests than their cosmopolitan neighbors. The future would be created mostly by the inertia of the past and those who would capitalize on historical contingencies. These contingencies would arise from unforeseen consequences of our technologies or by volition of those who would lead.
So where do we go from here? To begin with, there needs to be a belief that things can change. We need to regain faith in ourselves, and in others. There is a commonly held saying that gets passed around, that “people are stupid.” Yet on the other hand there is some mystical common sense that is also attributed to the same group. I think both are appropriated to suit the need of whoever is saying it at the time. It seems to be a scapegoating mechanism of sorts, to shift responsibility. The responsibility is always placed on the individual, never on the environment or system they are in. As the work of Neil Postman lays out, the media-ecology a person is embedded in holds a large portion of the blame since it induces certain types of thinking and thus certain kinds of behavior and beliefs.
To conclude, we need to find a way out of the quagmire of information, and away from our over-reliance on technology. This means breaking free from our infatuation and faith in technology and a need to find a new narrative to supplant the one of technopoly. We should keep in mind that certain technologies are around to stay, that they do indeed improve our lives in important aspects. Neil Postman is not a Luddite but instead tells us we need to apply cool rationalism against the taken for granted presumptions of our society. There are a few queries that can be adopted to help mitigate against possible contingencies of our technologies. Such as “what is the problem to which this technology [or product] is the solution?” and its corollary “whose problem is it?” There are a slew of others we can ask, such as: “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?”
One may object that it was rationalism which was borne out of the Enlightenment that has engendered the technologies that have undermined and sapped the meaning from our individual and collective lives. There is a tempting inclination to turn around and reject all that has led to our contemporary condition. However to throw out the baby with the bathwater may prove to be too hasty, and too reductionist an answer to such a complicated dilemma. The best chances to counter against the problems that have been outlined is a bottom up, individualist approach. The individualist approach should be adopted because advice from the past is largely biased towards it.
The wisdom of the ages and the sages is not bound by time and space … What they tell us is all the same: There is no escaping from ourselves.
The options available to the individual is to draw on culture, their education and most importantly their cognitive capacities such as rationalism. To draw on contemporary culture would be a mistake, as it is subsumed under technopoly. To draw on education may leave those without a sufficient one in the dark. The burden lays with the only widely available option, we need to reclaim our capacity for rational judgment.
The typographic-mind of the eighteenth-century shows us that we have the capacity for rationality. I think part of the answer lies in reclaiming this heritage to combat against the onslaught of our information age. Rationalism and more importantly its close partner skepticism have an important role to play. For, “no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are.” However I would like to interject that too much skepticism carries the danger of falling into solipsism. Postman also warns: “Reason, when unaided and untempered by poetic insight and humane feeling, turns ugly and dangerous.” We should look at the anti-Enlightenment reaction known as Romanticism for insights because I believe it can play a balancing force against pure rationalism. In short we need to be cautious and skeptical no matter what ideology or narrative we adopt, for it is bound to be tentative while we work it out. “Let us look there for instruction rather than models. Let us adopt the principles rather than the details.” Skepticism enables us to remain humble by recognizing that humans and thus our methods and technologies are fallible, yet it is all we have.
The other half of the solution is about finding a new context, a new narrative. I mean new in the sense that it rejects the currently dominating one and replaces it with something else. This means this narrative could be a rediscovery of the past, and how we fit in. This entails using our typographic capacity to examine history, and to piece together what we find most useful – and perhaps most beautiful – into a coherent whole that imbues our life with new meaning. To look at the past is to find a continuity that transcends the trivia of the day.
We … seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years.
It is only important that this context gives us an understanding of where we are, and what we should do; it only needs to resonate with oneself, it does not have to be true. This is alluded to when Postman says, “The idea that values are mere historical prejudices – would lead to despair and inaction … The purpose of narrative is to give meaning to the world, not to describe it scientifically.” To demand a standard of truth may place the burden of proof too high to affect real change. It doesn’t have to be some kind of grand theory meant to emancipate the masses, it only needs to be personal. There is one final caveat for the new narrative, it should serve as a source of moral authority and such authority entails obligations towards others. A new narrative should encompass such obligations otherwise we end up with more fragmented communities and less chances of meaningful discourse. Thus there needs to be a balance between the individual and the larger community.
This balance can only be achieved through educational institutions that also doubles to socialize and integrate the individual. Postman suggests we change the curriculum in schools to include the classical method of instruction of The Trivium, which includes teachings in logic, rhetoric and grammar. “Although the other two subjects, logic and rhetoric, sometimes go by different names today – among them, practical reasoning, semantics.” He also prescribes learning critical-thinking skills, specifically the art of questioning. This Postman points out, and I agree with, should not be introduced at too early an age, because it would lead to social instability. Early education is about socializing, indoctrinating if you will, the youth into a larger collective; the point is not to question our social institutions and methods, at least not at an early age. This is because the exercise of responsibility is less likely at such an age, it is only with a transition into adulthood where we are more likely to see the full development and exercise of that capacity. To enable the youth to question the social order would be risk enabling them to undermine moral authority for action, which is the very purpose we are seeking to achieve.
The last suggestion is the teaching and the adoption of the scientific method. To give a few examples of what this would entail I offer the following. When looking at opinion polls we can ask, How big was the sample size along with who funded this? We should also be aware how the slight change in a phrasing of a question can alter a response. Also we should be aware of the types of studies, such as longitudinal or epidemiological studies, which entails knowing the merits of each and thus how authoritative they are. In other words, “to what extent does a theory meet scientific criteria of validity?” What should be taught should hold an information-action ratio of 1:1 in order for the student to incorporate it into their lives. Or as Postman suggests, “theories [that] are most valuable in helping students to clarify the bases of their beliefs.” These suggestions, while not a panacea, should prove worthwhile for many.
To conclude we can see and we have all likely experienced the paradox of our times. If there is so much information, aphorisms and wisdom out there to follow how it that we seem more lost than ever? Information glut is undermining coherence and straining our capacities at compartmentalizing. There is a need to create a coherence, some kind of heuristic to piece together what we find meaningful and useful to hold onto. This shortcut can be found through the scientific method, as it has proven itself in weeding out the false, the trivial and the useless. This method while conducive to our rational capacity can be bolstered through an education geared towards it. The method also allows us to question sources of authority and to see things for ourselves. While rationalism and science were engendered by the Enlightenment and gave rise to the technologies that have put us in this mess, it is still a worthy set of tools. Our task is to use these tools for our needs, and not to let them gain autonomy over us and have us thus serving them. If a tool determines ends, it is a faulty one, it needs to be refit for our purposes otherwise we become slaves and abdicate responsibility and possibility.