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Information Overload: Our Present Dilemma

The Basics

To say we have a plethora of resources to pick and choose from in order to find information is indubitably an understatement as we progress into the 21st century. With such search engines like Google, Wikipedia and Dictionary.com, people are beginning to rely almost entirely on technology to discover the answers to their questions and solve their problems. What many people fail to realize however is the immense impact these technologies have on our daily lives and in turn our relationship to society.

How Much is too Much?

With such a wealth of information at our disposal, it becomes difficult for people to discern which texts are valuable and which are simply superfluous. Both Neil Postman and the acclaimed playwright and scholar George Bernard Shaw understood one very valuable concept; to quote Shaw…

“There is no more dangerous mistake than the mistake of supposing that we cannot have too much of a good thing.”

2008_11_overload

The simply fact is that information overload, referring to the concept, coined by Alvin Toffler, of a person having difficulty understanding an issue and making decisions when confronted with too much information, can be just as detrimental as having too little. With so much information right at our fingertips, it becomes difficult to filter what we need to retain and what we need to forget. It also becomes extremely easy to get confused as to what is fact and what is misleading fiction. A prime example of the issues involving to over saturation of information stored in digital media in the extremely popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia. While students tend to hold the site in the highest regard (myself included), teachers and scholars tend to shun it, and with good reason. This list gives some great reasons as to why students cannot rely on Wiki; they include the fact that students should never rely on simply one source for information, as well as the fact random people can edit the pages at will, freely placing misleading or false information in forms which appear to be accurate. The site itself contains the slogan “We do not expect you to trust us”. Quite telling.

Filtering the Facts

The next logical question in this sequence is what can be done about it? What can we as a society do to make sense of the vast ocean of data that is the internet? I pose two solutions. The first deals with the technology itself. Well designed filters and more personal information could help aid the fight to get rid of the unnecessary info that floods the web. The more obvious solution lies within us as human beings. We simply need a break. We need to put down those smart phones, laptops, tablets and turn off the television. We need to give our brains a chance to relax. Often times many people find themselves bombarded by work, with companies who are simply not understanding. If an employee is not instantly reachable, it becomes a problem. The culture this kind of attitude breeds is debilitating and unconducive to productive work. Some people in the corporate world do however understand the need for a break. Venture capitalists such as John Doerr, urge people to find a list of objectives and filter out everything else. He poses the question of whether the tasks his employees are engaged in are constructive or “activity for the sake of activity”. This Forbes Guide to filtering digital information is an interesting read.

The Future

“Will the new consumer technologies and high-definition, digital broadcasting converge into a monolith of mass distraction and individual manipulation worthy of Brave New World? Will we entertain ourselves right onto the mortician’s slab, our cold, dead fingers wrapped around iPhones and Crackberries? Or will our tools escape from the toolmakers’ control and offer activists the ongoing opportunity to speak truth to power and address a growing democratic deficit, and back-engineer face-to-face community?”

-Geoff Olsen

This interview with Postman poses several extraordinarily interesting and relevant points in terms of our reliance on technology and the damage it can inflict on society. However, the most brilliant thought in my eyes lies in his argument about what brilliant young people across the globe choose to focus their energy on. He asserts that young people will invent wondrous things for a computer to do, seeking prestige and power and some even might achieve fame, yet it is his following thought that I feel holds the most power…

“I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy.  Imagine what might be accomplished if thistalent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts,to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we couldlearn from such people – perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.”

It seems we have turned away from what makes us human beings. Technology has become such a dominant force in our everyday lives that we have lost a sense of humanity. True emotion cannot be computed. There is no definitive answer to the meaning of life on Google. Wikipedia cannot explain in a brief encyclopedia article what love is. To discover these things, to discover ourselves, Postman argues that we must turn away from this technology, that we must use it as an extension of ourselves but not let it become us. Before we completely bombard ourselves and become entirely immersed in the information overload that floods our society and culture, perhaps we should attempt to revert back to the notions that infamous thinkers such as Socrates and Ralph Waldo Emerson presented to us. They sought to make us more complete as human beings, rather than the overly-informed product of a machine.

Philosophy-of-Mind-Workshop

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