Information Glut

On a recommendation by Scott Berkun, I’m reading Technopoly by Neil Postman. Published in 1992, truths about today’s world seep throughout this book. I’m only 70 pages in but I’m hooked and loving the way my mind is being stretched. What follows are quotes + reflections + lots of rambling:

“He means to say that those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence… We have a similar situation in the development and spread of computer technology, for here too there are winners and losers… It is to be expected that the winners will encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology… Eventually, the losers succumb, in part because they believe, as Thamus prophesied, that the specialized knowledge of the masters of a new technology is a form of wisdom. The masters come to believe this as well, as Thamus also prophesied. The result is that certain questions do not arise. For example, to whom will the technology give greater power and freedom? And whose power and freedom will be reduced by it? ” excerpts from Technopoly by Neil Postman

Just look at today’s world and you can see this to be true. Knowing how to manage and create today’s tech has created elite groups of programmers, hackers, developers, whatever name you want to call them. Spending time with my mom (a woman who will most likely be more educated than I ever will be) and watching her interact with technology is a prime example. She is incredibly intelligent but not technologically intelligent which leaves her feeling constantly behind and “stupid” in today’s tech filled world. We joke that technology “just doesn’t like her” but frankly it wasn’t built for her. It has nothing to do with her – it has everything to do with the tech she is trying so hard to use. Yet everyday we are told how much better and efficient our lives are thanks to this same technology. She is on the losing side of our advancements and it worries me as more aspects of our society are moved online. I noticed recently that she created passwords that were relatively similar (based on the fact that I could guess them when trying to help her access accounts) and it left me with a sense of panic because I knew she did because it’s become too much to remember her passwords for her different accounts. I knew I could try to teach her how to use LastPass or 1Password but I think even then she would have trouble accessing the login for those accounts! What worried me the most was how open it left her to be hacked. Luckily, she follows better password guidelines than most of my friends do thanks to the urging of my dad and myself.

I’ve listened to friends talk about how “stupid” they are or how stupid they feel when it comes to tech. We’ve gone so far as to not only put those who understand tech on a pedestal but to lower ourselves to mere idiots when we don’t understand. I’ve done this in my interactions with developers I’ve worked with. I apologize for not understanding and say it’s “just over my head”. I started changing this reaction – “Can you explain this a bit more? I don’t understand xyz but I am following when it comes to abc”. To get to this point though, I already have some level of technological confidence enough to know what to even ask for clarification on.

I’ve had moments of arrogance as a winner of this strange, accidental contest – I had a friend whose site was hacked and they were going to pay $500 to have it cleaned. I was able to fix it and re-secure the site within the hour. My friend immediately showered me in praises about how brilliant I was when really everything I did was quite… simple. It was a strange moment where, for the first time, I was on the other side of the coin as a winner. Rather than being left baffled by technology, I manipulated it to my will.

“It (technology) solved the problem of information scarcity, the disadvantages of which were obvious. But it gave no warning about the dangers of information glut, the disadvantages of which were not seen so clearly… The world has never before been confronted with information glut and has hardly had time to reflect on its consequences.” excerpts from Technopoly by Neil Postman

I struggle daily with the battle of information overload. One part of me wrestles to have enough information to stay in tune and the other part of me battles for my sanity asking “Why do you even need to know about xyz, Anne?”. With things like Apple News, we are deluded into thinking we have control over the information we receive because we set our preferences for what to follow. We scroll through thinking we chose to see what we’re seeing when, in reality, some algorithm is choosing for us and we are, yet again, passive recipients. Beyond that, we are segmenting ourselves for content producers! We’re making their job easier. It’s a brilliant system that makes us forget to question and allows others to overwhelm us with even more information that we have opted into knowing about.

(Side rant: Just imagine Apple passing on information that xyz topic is most followed on Apple News – it would take a lot of convincing to even attempt to try to make me believe that writers wouldn’t change how they write to target that group more. Opting in== more information overload + less questions about said overload.)

In trying to control this funnel, we succumb to “personalization”. We are quick to unfollow/unsubscribe from updates about matters that are irrelevant to us but we are slow to unfollow/unsubscribe if the information is targeted. My friends, this is today’s Market Segmentation:

Market segmentation is a marketing strategy which involves dividing a broad target market into subsets of consumers, businesses, or countries that have, or are perceived to have, common needs, interests, and priorities, and then designing and implementing strategies to target them. Market segmentation strategies are generally used to identify and further define the target customers, and provide supporting data for marketing plan elements such as positioning to achieve certain marketing plan objectives.” from Wikipedia

Marketers know we struggle with information overload and have used that to their advantage. We may not even want more information but if it’s relevant it becomes harder to disengage. The joke’s on us essentially. We think we are in greater control because we finally only see content relevant to us when, in reality, that’s what businesses want us to believe. We only notice when an ad, for example, is egregiously off base. It has to be glaring though for us to pause. For example, I was recently advertised condoms on spotify which is hilarious for a number of reasons (um, hello, I mainly date women and have never truly dated a man). It made me laugh, pause, and then (of course) continue on my way as the next ad started.

“We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.” excerpt from Technopoly by Neil Postman

What control mechanisms have you put in place to control this flow of information? Do you even think about trying to control the flow of information or is the idea of “information is our friend” so ingrained in your head by now you don’t realize it might have an evil twin? At the very least, information is not a very good friend.

“To say that someone should be doing better work because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man’s essay on the rise of capitalism is an A- and that man’s is a C+ would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson. If it make sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did. Our understanding of what is real is different.” excerpt from Technopoly by Neil Postman

It’s not just the information overload that’s deluding us but the type of information we come to value. “Data” is the new sexy language of today’s tech driven world. I’ve written about this before. A brief and relevant excerpt: Technology did it’s job though – it tracked me, notified me, and tried to gamify me through rewards. All of this only makes me sure that we must in turn do ours – we must still work on the messiness of forgiving and forgetting and remembering. Simply tracking and recording doesn’t excuse us from these responsibilities (along with many other huge responsibilities). For context, I was referring to my fitbit and its tracking abilities. As I mentioned though, this doesn’t excuse us from thinking about the information we receive and the context we receive it in. We forget that grades and scales and data points are recent and imperfect inventions. We’ve forgotten that just because we can quantify something doesn’t mean we can fully understand it. We pretend it allows us to.

Not everything is meant to be quantified and we have forgotten how to be okay with that in pursuit of more information as we see more information as more knowledge (which we’ve deemed as inherently valuable). We need to get over feeling like forgetting or not tracking a behavior is immoral or a waste. Afterall, why do you track your steps over, say, tracking the number of breaths you take in a day? It probably just comes down to the fact that it was easier and more easily commercialized to create the tech for step tracking than for breath counting. It probably wasn’t a matter of meaning but more a matter of happenstance. I’m sure if tracking one’s breath was easier, we would be marketed the benefits in a heartbeat and wouldn’t think twice about reaching a silly 10,000 step goal.

More rants and thoughts soon.



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