Information Idealism

In an essay on Internet Evolution, Cory Doctorow writes that our various communications technologies have become less about communication and more about selective ignorance. In other words, he argues that more attention should be paid to ignorance.

Compare this to my last post about the perils of perfect memory and the Internet’s hand in creating that double-edged situation, one in which we have to think consciously about what we should be forgetting and how to do it.

Essays like these mark the beginning of something new and terrible, something we’ve expected for years but something we thought we had under control: the information glut, the situation in which society freezes beneath the weight of too much unconsidered information. The market essentially bottoms out, the value of meaning becomes nil.

This is nowhere clearer than in communications media, where the significance of meaning has declined while users’ facility with language and style has not increased to compensate. The problem comes from mankind’s constant search for faster ways to communication. Letters gave way to telegraphs (with the accompanying shortening of syntax). Telegraphs, skipping voice tech for the moment, gave way to e-mail, which allowed the use of more characters because of an increase in bandwidth over the wires and better input methods (keyboards).

But that lengthening didn’t last. E-mail begat instant messaging. Meanwhile, society adapted to accept cell phones and Blackberries. Being incommunicado became a faux pas. On top of that, we had to be in touch with more and more people at once, hence the one-on-one nature of instant messaging wasn’t enough, and so came sites like Twitter. Progress marches on; it’s just that the steps keep getting shorter and shorter as we go.

So now, instead of getting six long letters a month, we get 60,000 tiny e-mails or texts, an influx of information battling for our attention. Eventually, we get a schizophrenic culture with shorter attention spans and less desire to read something longer than a paragraph.

Perhaps we’ll adapt and learn to ignore the majority of what happens in daily life like we ignore ad banners on Web sites, hardly noticing as the world around us is transformed into something that little resembles the world that came before us. No wonder it’s hard for people to see that global warming is real, hidden from our ADD society beneath pavement and behind billboards, those forgettable commodities that we ignore every day.

We live in a postmodern world, in which all points of view are theoretically correct because all points of view are based on sliding foundations and, deep down, on assertions of faith. We can no longer say that this slope leading into info glut is “bad” or “incorrect” or “wrong” because, for some, it is right, and the enlightened person respects that.

But at the end of the day, when some people still stop to reflect on correctness and, shockingly, idealism, I have to wonder whether a negatively capable world, in which ignorance is the commonest action, is one I want to live in.


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