Lost in a Sea of Information

tom_honig_sOscar Wilde once averred, “I am not young enough to know everything.” Imagine if he tried living in this modern era of too much information. It’s impossible to keep up.

I think it’s my iPad that finally made me hit the wall. It’s an incredible device—offering more information at one sitting than anyone could have ever imagined in those days of yore where we’d sit with maybe a newspaper, a magazine or even a book.

Years ago, I went to a journalism seminar and the media expert there asked the crowd of reporters and editors whether their business was news or information. More than half said they wanted to give information to their readers—go well beyond the news and really inform the public.

“But is that enough?” the expert wondered. “What you really want to give them is knowledge.”

Now that’s a goal. Imagine the challenge and the payoff for anyone in the news business. Cover a story, figure it out and then analyze it to the extent that you’re sharing knowledge with the person who’s reading it.

Well, it’s a great goal, but unfortunately, sharing knowledge is hardly something that can be done on a daily basis.

But now, thanks to the availability of information—a crushing overload of information— knowledge is available. On a daily basis.

I took delivery of my iPad last March. It was probably the coolest electronic device ever made. I sat down to have a look and found that only a smattering of media sources had applications available. I read an abridged version of The New York Times and another one of The Wall Street Journal. There were some videos from ABC News. That was the extent of it.

Now, some nine months later, the situation is overwhelming. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have been joined by the other big boys—the Washington Post, the Economist, the New Yorker, CNN, NPR, PBS and more and more and more.

What’s so distracting is that all these sites are so great. Here we are in 2010, listening to doomsayers who complain that the media business is failing, yet there’s more access to information (and knowledge) than any other time in human history.

One morning last week, I settled in with the trusty iPad and decided to really see how much good information was there. I learned more than I ever could have imagined about WikiLeaks, the Deficit Commission, aboPeripheral Artery Disease and Chinese policies toward North Korea.

Then again, who has this much time?

What about the Michael Crichton book I had just picked up? What about the Somerset Maugham biography I had downloaded onto the iPad and still haven’t read?  And then, of course, I watched a couple videos from The Onion and totally ignored the more important matters that had originally caught my eye.

The lesson just might be that knowledge is being buried in a crush of information. There’s simply too much to process.

In this space right before the election, I grumbled over the contrived talking points adhered to by every office-seeker on television. Election messaging was reduced to three or four of these talking points—and often not even the most important issues.

Maybe that awful trend is simply a result of the bounding sea of information that washes across all of us on a daily basis. Politicians know what works—and that’s distilling all that information into just a few well-chosen words that make voters feel good. “Yes we can,” said President Obama. And the majority of us liked the sound of it—even though it really didn’t mean much, looking back on it two years later.

The lesson here is that it still takes work to be informed. The late author Neil Postman suggested years ago in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that new information technology—especially television—is really not adding to humans’ understanding of the world around us.

In a speech in 1999, Postman anticipated the impact of this sea of information:

“If it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.”

That leaves me out. But then again, as Wilde said, maybe I’m just not young enough.

Contact Tom Honig at [email protected]

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