A beautiful mindlessness

You can’t have too much information. Or can you? Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Orlowski examines the “glut of hazy information, the consequences of which we have barely begun to explore, that the internet has made endlessly available.” He wonders whether the “aggregation of [online] information,” which some see as “synonymous with wisdom,” isn’t actually eroding our ability to think critically. He quotes Will Davies, of the Institute of Public Policy Research, who observes that

we can endlessly delay having to interpret and judge things by stacking more and more bits of data in front of us … That data is a comfort blanket in a way – we all do this. People are becoming addicted to getting more information all the time. You can see it when they get out their BlackBerrys as soon as they’ve stepped off a plane.

Like me, you’ve probably sensed the same thing, in yourself and in others – the way the constant collection of information becomes an easy substitute for trying to achieve any kind of true understanding. It seems a form of laziness as much as anything else, a laziness that the internet both encourages and justifies. The web is “a hall of mirrors” that provides the illusion of thinking, Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, tells Orlowski. “No one would tell you a student using Google today is producing work as good as they were 20 years ago using printed sources. Despite these amazing technical breakthroughs, these technologies haven’t added to human wellbeing.”

A couple of weeks ago, my 16-year-old son said, out of nowhere, “I wish I lived before there were computers.” I think I know what he meant.

19 thoughts on “A beautiful mindlessness

  1. vinnie mirchandani

    Nick, too bad your young son is jaded already…his (and that includes me 12 and 14 year olds) is the most tech savvy generation ever. If they cannot take advantage of it and we cannot take advantage as an economy of their tech savviness then yes we are mindless…

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    I think this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater: “Despite these amazing technical breakthroughs, these technologies haven’t added to human wellbeing.”

    Now, no collection of data, no matter how large, magically becomes one thought. That is an important point, to make to people who confuse the two. But that vice is the mirror-image of the virtue of an ability to organize large amounts of informations in the first place – something which is at the core of a complex society. Which goes to Will Davies point, in a way, that we’re organizing society so as to *require* people to conform to the structure of fast information exchange.

    It’s similar to the way industrialization produced factory workers, arranging their schedule to the demands of The Machine – but we can’t go back to a pre-Industrial Age, and I think we’d be far worse off it we did.

    The challenge is then not to blame *technology* for the *social* choices – that’s both easy and futile.

  3. Sid Steward

    Interesting. The tough part is defining “human wellbeing.” I know folks who are very happy to reinforce their prejudices with information they find online — and what can’t you find online?

  4. JeffB

    By chance, I’m 36 so I was exactly a 16 year old writing the high school term paper 20 years ago. I think people fail to remember how poor quality the resources were:

    1) Because it was hard to find books on a subject, the term paper basically was a book report on 2 books with a few quotes taken from a half dozen others

    2) The sources chosen were very mainstream

    3) Most of the work was about organizing quotes as you were reading (the sort of stuff you would use a hyper linked notepad for today)

    4) For the second half of the project one of the big goals was being able to type 20 pages relatively error free.

    Word processing has made 4 very easy. (Though I was using a word processor then I was an exception)

    Google eliminates a great deal of the need for searching out and organizing information unless the topic is fairly obscure. If the topic is obscure then there are a wide range of apps designed to allow for complex linking and embedding of text. Those documents are then keyword searchable. So (3) is dead

    I’m not even going to mention how much Google and Amazon make non mainstream sources available. Well beyond anything a high school student needs. So 1 and 2 have improved.

    So what exactly is worse today?

  5. S Beach

    Working as a freelance reporter, it is difficult for me to dismiss the value of information available on the Web. I couldn’t afford the time, phone costs or transportation costs to get much of the same information direct from sources. The improvement to my quality of life can be quantified as the chance of an injury accident occurring during the extra driving I would do without the Internet.

    Much of the same information would arrive by fax anyway, once I located a source, or by mail if fax weren’t available. It seems unreasonable to establish a line that says the electronic sorting methods of the post office don’t overload our awareness but fax does, or that transmission by fax fits our mental capacity, but the same data rendered on a screen or stored in digital memory may. It’s either stored in a paper file or stored digitally.

    But the aggregate of information available in our time does pose serious challenges to our capacity to sort information. Digital storage provides better means for sorting. The challenge is to match the capacity to the need. We are a larger population than we were 50 years ago, attempting to sort all the information from our larger class of living humans, on top of all the data from prior classes. In our time, we are confronting a detachment from the sorting processes of earlier generations.

    Not only has our text-based information supply exploded, but our total collection of cultural elements has burgeoned. We have more words on file, and they don’t begin to completely describe our larger collection of artifacts. Our current collective collection of text is not only incomplete, it is chaotic.

    From somewhere in the crowd, we now hear a growing cry to heed the wisdom of crowds — a voice eager to embrace wisdom evident in the artifacts of earlier classes. Problem is, the wisdom is not evenly distributed among the crowd. In times past, wisdom has emerged from crowds, but not consistently and not without purges, misdirection and frequent failure.

    The question then becomes one of how we sort the information, using the best wisdom available in crowds while avoiding fatal stampedes in the crush. Therein we find a clue to why current open source knowledge filtering methods are failing. The fascination with wisdom of crowds presumes reason will usually prevail in a crowd. It ignores our more deeply rooted reliance on emotions and drives. It builds our hope on faith in our capacity to reason, and not on a reasonable assessment of our capacity as animals. In doing so, we toss out that fundamental wisdom that emerged from our growing body of knowledge. We are animals. Our biology and mental capacity are as animal as they are human. Whatever is useful about our lives is as animal as it is human, and can never be fully human without being fully animal.

    As animals, we developed organizing principles that allowed us to accumulate knowledge. Our challenge now is to apply these organizing principles. Without qualified leadership, and sometimes strict internal controls, we will organize ourselves more like schools and flocks than like packs and herds. In a school, any single fish that breaks that order of the school out of fear or hunger can lead the entire school into the mouth of a whale. That is where some of our new information-aggregating leaders are leading us.

    Our challenge as reasonable animals is to resist the lure of information aggregators who would have us follow the school wherever it leads. Instead, we need to set our sites on leaders who have earned status by demonstrating capacity to sort specialized knowledge. It is a safe bet that many of those leaders have longer lists of degrees than they have lists of edits on an open-source encyclopedias.

  6. Mathew Ingram

    I would have to agree with JeffB on this one. The comment about student research being worse now because of Google is, I suspect, a load of bollocks. Yes, it’s true that having such a wealth of data — some of it valuable and much of it not — makes it even more important that a filter of some kind be applied. That’s what we should be teaching our kids — how to sort the good from the bad, the useful from the useless, the true from the untrue. And the Internet is good for that too. Yes, the aggregation of all that data can make it difficult to think critically — for those who already find it difficult to think critically. But that’s a problem society suffered from long before the Internet came along.

  7. Sid Steward

    Some more food for thought on the topic of technology and human wellbeing. When Negroponte’s $100 laptop made such a splash, mainstream coverage seemed seduced by the gadget. I ranted on my blog:

    The notion that “500MHz, 1GB, 1 Megapixel” is a magic formula for superior education and economic acceleration goes unquestioned, for some reason.

    My issue? The makers have no plans to supply curriculum, content or training, beyond what you get on a Linux system today. Quoting myself again:

    A laptop without content is like a book without words.

    Even today, debates center on hardware issues.

    Personally, I’d rather have $100 in books (with words) than $100 in technology.

  8. morbid

    tech savyness is quite meaningless. People are not producing better mathematical/scientific works than people hundreds of years ago, so how did these more accessible information help?

    These information make people nothing more than consumer of information, and no longer can think for themselves.

  9. S Beach

    Granted we relied more on biological memory and memory processing when we didn’t have a machine that could do it. But machine memory has improved our intelligence.

    Much advanced disease research is only possible with the aid of electronic memory. A recent decline in cancer death rates is one example of the result. Statistical analysis of risk have increased prevention efforts while computer aided screening tests have improved early detection.

    Unless waiting three months for a handwritten letter to arive by boat from a family member overseas is better than instant delivery of a text message, our quality of life has improved in as much as we can better communicate at a distance.

  10. Small Paul

    I’ve found RSSaddictive in the way it feeds little bits of information to occupy my attention for a short amount of time.

    But I do feel the time I spend looking at all my feeds could be better spent with one big book, sometimes.

    I think technology has given us the potential to focus on much more data much more quickly, when we want to. But many of us seem not to want to. That’s not technology’s fault, any more than it’s tabacco’s fault people die of lung cancer.

  11. Nick

    Thanks for all the comments. Very interesting. I’ll try to make a fuller reply later, when I’m more awake, but here are a few reactions.

    Vinnie: I don’t think he was expressing jadedness at all. I think it was disappointment – a sense that the ubiquitous LCD may be more deadening than quickening.

    S Beach: There’s much that I agree with in your first comment about the unreliability of crowds. But – and this also goes for Mathew and JeffB – you seem to define intelligence wholly in terms of fairly mechanical functions like collecting, sorting, and filtering information (what might be termed “data-processing functions”). Sure, those are very important, but aren’t they in the end secondary to the synthesis of information, the discernment of connections, the making of metaphors. These things have little to do with the speed with which we gather and sort information or even the quantity of information we amass. In fact, speed and quantity can get in the way. Connection-making actually requires the ability to think deeply, to hold a few things steadily in the mind, and, as well, an open-ended mental playfulness – what I’d guess you’d call, in a word, contemplation. It seems to me that internet-mediated information processing, even with the best filters, is more or less antithetical to contemplation. It breeds a flattened kind of intelligence, lacking depth or roundness. What’s most interesting about the mind, to me, is what’s most resistant to computerization.

    Which is not to dispute, S Beach, your point that computer data-processing has greatly improved our ability to perform certain intellectual tasks – often very important intellectual tasks. But I think to conclude from that that “machine memory has improved our intelligence” is to shortchange our intelligence. There’s more to intelligence than what machine memory enhances.

    As to whether I’d rather wait three months for a letter or get an email in two seconds, well, if the content were the same, I guess I’d say the faster, the better. But I’ve read a few old letters and I’ve read a hell of a lot of emails, and you know what? The content ain’t the same.

  12. Nick

    Small Paul: Yes, the fault is not in our technologies but in our selves. Nevertheless, there is such a thing as technological determinism just as there’s such a thing as economic determinism. So it can be difficult – and a waste of time – to try to distinguish who or what’s at fault. As Seth noted, trying to place “blame” is futile; there’s probably not even a “problem” here that can be “solved.” Nvertheless, it’s important to try to observe what’s happening accurately.

    Finally, as to the ability of students to write cogent essays, I think it’s fairly well accepted that the trend has been downward, not upward. That can’t be blamed simply on computers or the internet, of course, but I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re helping the situation (other than making it extremely easy to purchase term papers written by other, perhaps more literate people).

  13. S Beach

    Thanks for the attentive reply, Nick. We’re probably much closer on this than our exchange reveals, but since you are advancing a Luddite side of the argument, I’m representing more of the “not all that bad” side.

    One thing I notice is that our discussion (thanks to me) mingles machine memory with internet connectivity. The latter is an extension of the former, but the former is more easily defended as it contributes to our intelligence. You suggest intelligence includes the ability “to hold a few things steadily in the mind”. That is the aspect of intelligent capacity my prosthetic memory has enhanced.

    As I sit here crunching numbers to review performance of a government agency, I recognize that without machine memory I probably would not have had the interest even if I did have the capacity to review datasets containing more than a million numbers. I suppose the jury is still out on whether our network-facilitated discussion is a quality reprieve or a distraction from my work. My quality of life might have been better if I had been a farmer and had never touched this data, but our chances of fair governance are better if I complete this analysis.

  14. Gianni Catalfamo

    Of course, every new technology has benefits and drawbacks – I am sorry, but there’s a lot of people here who sound like my grandmother, longing for the “good ol’ days”…

    …where the vast majority of people, except those living in a big city, had no access to libraries

    …where the vast majority of people, except those living in the richest 10% of the world, had no opportunity to discuss and learn from others

    …where you had to suck up whatever s**t was fed to you by television, decided by your government

    C’mon, people die from car accidents, but I think the benefits we got from cars are far more than the drawbacks. This is obviously not to say we should not improve constantly, but critical thinking can only come from abundance of stimuli, not lack thereof…

  15. Infidel

    The problem is not the availability, but that people are unable to sort through all the information they receive.

    Humans mostly and as a matter of fact are sheep – they do not like to think for themselves. This may sound harsh, but in reality this laziness makes life livable – imagine we would have to think through and evaluate every decision we make.

    It is just that the evolution of technology was and is at a faster speed than the evolution of mankind can cope with.

  16. Scott Karp

    Nick, you didn’t really think a lament about not stopping to think would find a welcome reception in the blogosphere, the epicenter of knee-jerk “thought”? Look at what happens when there’s breaking technology “news,” like Google launches a calendar, or Scoble farts, or whatever — within in minutes on memeorandum you can see 500 bloggers piling on the topic. I’m guilty of this myself. But typically I don’t have anything resembling a useful thought until something has been rattling around in my head for awhile. When I drive to work, I often do so in silence because that’s the only way my brain can do anything useful with all the information I’ve shoved into it. (How wonderful that we now have podcasting so that we can take the blather with us wherever we go.)

    Try shutting off the computer and reading some Emerson — I find Experience ususally does it for me.

  17. Arnie McKinnis

    Technology, in all it’s glory (or lack of) is merely a tool – it is the craftsman using the tool that creates a masterpiece. Case in point, we have at our fingertips the technology effortlessly create a novel (word processor, printers, spell checkers, grammar checkers, etc.) – but how many of us have the skill (or could even learn) to write a timeless literary masterpiece? Having the technology to do it is completely irrelevant – that merely makes it “easier” – I’m glad I live in this age of constant change and advancement.

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