Monday, July 5, 2010

Solution to Media Overload: Make Every Day Independence Day

We hold this truth to be self-evident, that free people must think for themselves.

While I have written about the positive impact of Way Too Much Information (WTMI) others, like Judy Shapiro, writing for the Advertising Age website, see media overload as a problem. She cites a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press study from last year which indicated that the percent of Americans who think news organizations get the “facts straight” has declined from 55% in 1985 to 29% currently.

It’s hard to believe that there were so many suckers in 1985! But Shapiro asserts that “…this low confidence number is reflective of the confusing plethora of new voices rather than of the real hard work most reporters do to ensure accuracy.” She lauds such solutions as a database company which provides supposedly vetted sources to journalists, and a nonprofit service that “combines crowd sourced interaction with algorithms” to rank incoming content.

The problem is not information overload. It’s “filter failure,” according to "internet guru," Clay Shirky. He sees information overload as a fact of life dating back to Guttenberg’s invention of movable type. Information selection and organization built around printing press economics is breaking down, according to Shirky, because of the flow of information from low-cost internet sources. The solution according to Shirky is partly institutional and technical; but more fundamentally an issue of rethinking social norms. “When you feel yourself getting too much information” Shirky advises, “Ask yourself, what filter just broke? What was I relying on before that stopped functioning?”

We are to information overload what fish are to water,” Shirky observes. So why does Shirky think the condition arose only with the invention of movable type? Haven’t humans always swum in a sea of information, from visual, auditory, and other senses? In reality, our brains are constantly filtering information and we are endowed with the capacity for conscious thought that allows us to monitor and influence those filtering processes.

As we reflect this holiday weekend upon the words of the Declaration of Independence (Google’s 3rd highest ranking search as I write this), penned by Thomas Jefferson and adopted in Congress, 4 July, 1776, we would all do well to reflect also on the commentary of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in his famous essay, Self Reliance, that “ A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which crosses his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages” (or, I might add, gurus, pundits, professors, politicians, reporters and the many raconteurs of old and new media).

No free person can delegate the responsibility for determining truth. Every day we must independently determine what sources of information we deem worthy of our individual trust.

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Anonymous Judy Shapiro said...

Thanks for your insight about how information saturation can be understood. I actually agree with Shirky when in 2008 his pointed to a lack filters to assess the value of the information we see.

Where Shirky and I may diverge is that I believe we may have reached our intellectual capacity to absorb everything we may want to. A case in point. I am trying to write a directory on all the social media technologies out there. Mind you, I am being very focused on social media only - and even with my ability to understand this "stuff" I am overwhelmed. This is not a function of a bad filter -- this is just a tonnage issue.

So Shirky is right --we need better filters -- but I posit we also have too much good stuff too.

Thanks again for raising this question -- it is so very important.

Judy Shapiro

July 5, 2010 at 6:21 PM  
Blogger Roger Wilson said...

Thanks Judy. The point I am attempting to make is not that we need better filters but that we need to BE better filters. Humans have always swum in a sea of information. Most of our filters are unconscious and poorly adapted to modern media, e.g. our tendency to accept repeated assertions and draw inferences from the same observation repeated multiple times which you mentioned in your piece.

Shirky is certainly often quoted but I am skeptical of his thesis that the capital intensity of print and broadcast media is its most salient characteristic. Electronic media transmitted through cables and broadcast by airwaves to various receiving units (phone, computer and soon TV) is also capital intensive. I suspect that the most salient characteristic across all information media is the increasing return to scale which implies that content does not have to be good to be successful. A good story does not have to be true, it simply has to be a good seller and once it starts selling it becomes self reinforcing. Thus my central point that we need to BE better filters.

July 6, 2010 at 8:05 AM  

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