Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre

by | Dec 4, 2011

Are you suffering from Information Age blues? Drowning in data with no time or inclination to sort through it all? You are not alone.

“The issue nowadays is to some extent the need for good filters, pushing away information after centuries of seeking it,” writes Quentin Hardy, Deputy Tech Editor of The New York Times.

Hardy attended a lecture in Berkeley last week by Harvard’s David Weinberger. Weinberger’s new book, Too Big To Know grapples in part with the problem of too much information. Weinberger also believes that “the Web’s ever-changing structure of links undermines hierarchical analysis by allowing everyone to see and contribute different points of view.”

Since Aristotle, there has been at least lip service to the idea of teleology, a process of discovery that leads to greater and greater understanding. We have invested much of our society in making such a process better.

Now, he said, the model of a protean, ever-linked and ever-changing world is killing that. “The dream of the West has been that we will live together in knowledge, that there is One Knowledge. The Web is saying ‘Nice try,'” Mr. Weinberger said. By its very success we know that “the Internet as a medium is far more like the world we live in” and “the Web is closer to the phenomenological truth of our lives,” he said.

Weinberger responded to Hardy’s article with a post of his own. For one, he thinks the headline in the Times piece is misleading.

“I don’t think the Net is ruining everything, and I am (overall) thrilled to see how the Net is transforming knowledge.”

I shared Hardy’s writeup with my friend DK, who is a professor of philosophy. DK wrote back to say the writer “should have mentioned Nietzsche. This article focuses on epistemology–but there are also social issues involved.”

Detailing one such social issue, DK says it is “interesting to note how the students’ writing skills have plummeted in the last several years. They write in sentence fragments with no command of American English–like they’re sending text messages.”

Which goes to this increasingly difficult issue at the heart of the too much information problem: Who has time to think? When the volume of information is pumping at full throttle, and you are gaming on one large screen, while using a desktop, laptop, tablet and/or phone for other tasks, there’s no time to read or write and no time for measured reflection.

DK is right to be concerned about the deterioration of basic communication skills in his students. And I am right to be concerned that I read fewer books that I once did. Why am I reading fewer books? Because the time I once reserved for reading text on paper is now given over to reading, writing and rearranging text on the screen. Plenty of thought and care go in to these acts, but where is the long arching story that requires deep concentration for hours and days on end? Where is the place in our hectic lives for the literary equivalent of the long walk in the woods? The answer is it is all available — the short form eBooks on every topic under the sun and the long form classics.

I think what our media abundance calls for is a greater degree of media literacy and also some personal restraint. It takes a disciplined reader to tackle Heidegger, Joyce, Yeats, Faulkner and the like. The reader must work for the pay off, as instant gratification, to say nothing of the game layer, is nowhere to be found.