DIGGING IN THE CRATES: Reflections on Chapter 15 of, The Information: A Theory, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick

INTRODUCTION

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is a book written in 2011 by science history author James Gleick which examines the history of information systems with a focus upon the dawn of the information age.

“One hungers for books; rereads a cherished few; begs or borrows more; waits at the library door, and perhaps, in the blink of an eye, finds oneself in a state of surfeit: too much to read” (415).

Ignorance is bliss especially if enough of those around you share the same sentiment.

The search for information and knowledge  has always been an attempt to climb a hill that keeps on growing. Content analysis requires the privilege of time to reflect. The pace of information genesis and dissemination beginning in the 20th century has created an atmosphere short on free time. Apart from the concerns of daily life consuming our limited time for reflection the sheer amount of information now available further decreases that time in its pace and scale of presentation.

In Chapter 15 of his book Gleick quotes  a reflection on “new news” from 1621 by Oxford scholar Robert Burton which still rings true:

Those of us living in the social media information age are not flooded with information we literally exist in the midst of an expansive sea of information as if we were aquatic animals.

TOTAL NOISE

 “The tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective”

Total Noise a term coined by David Foster Wallace to describe existence for those seeking information. I’ve long felt that the information age is not necessarily a time for freedom and growth due to the availability of information to more people than any time history but rather an era where personal and collective judgment must rise to the fore in order to make sense of a multi-faceted reality visible from more angles than ever thought possible. Each of us possess the equivalent of a palantir in our pockets. When consulting it for information the form in which data is related to us can have just as great an impact as the data itself.

The way that Twitter specifically organizes itself and subsequently your mental consumption of information is interesting. Rows or lines of data in the form of text and pictures scroll vertically through your sensory register. Memes and secondary derivations of stories often reach you before the news event they are built on. While this creates the opportunity for robust thinking and narrative construction in one’s head (as you attempt to ‘guess’ what a meme or remark actually means) it also has the effect of “flattening” all news to bit sized social media ‘events’ for consumption and discussion. The ability for us to fast forward through present (and past) is a skill that’s rarely commented on directly. While most could comment on the general reduction of attention spans the dynamic of our complicity in creating shorter attention spans by becoming real-time and producers of a world view created by information consumption is lesser mentioned.

In reaching the “Total Noise” level in our communications we’ve deeply embedded ourselves in a feedback loop which arises from our brains ability for cognition under duress. Yes, information overload is a form of duress. Modern society’s unceasing drive toward’s “more,” manifests itself in its people through the anxieties of possession.

THE TIME DILATION PROPERTY OF INFORMATION 

“The past folds accordion-like into the present. DIFFERENT MEDIA HAVE DIFFERENT EVENT HORIZONS—for the written word, three millennia; for recorded sound, a century and a half—and within their time frames the old becomes as accessible as the new” (423).

The time of physical ownership of a piece of media or text served as a barrier to both apathy from overload and anxiety from a desire to possess “new news.” There is no longer any such barrier:

“Market forces are confused; information can seem too cheap and too expensive at the same time. The old ways of organizing knowledge no longer work,” hence the rise of Social Influencers, Blue Checkers and the MSM’s attack on “alt-media.” Whole new terms and even SM ‘dialects’ can be formed based off a single event and its antecedents. This is a form of language creation but also one wherein the durability and even the meaning of the new forms of language are ephemeral.

The author nails it here. I find Twitter different than other platforms in its static yet mobile nature of information carriage. The act of “scrolling” past “news” is also a mechanism that I wonder if it affects the programming of our neural pathways. A whirlwind of text and images become memes and hashtags become physical. The morphology of this new language is one of a magical reality that fuses the past, present and future into packets of information for viral consumption. Context isn’t lost necessarily but it has been removed from some epistemological constant for analysis. Context now is subject to instant recontextualization  by all of us via the manner in which we consume it.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information”(417)?

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other aggregator sites all provide us with information but the manner of presentation and how we view, use and share it creates subtly different perspectives. Be it expounding in longer FB posts vs. concentration of ideas into a length suitable for twitter posts, or listening rather than watching a video in a side panel as you continue to scroll are all actions which affect neural pathway formation. We are rewiring our brains and rewriting our histories. However we are not the only ones doing this. And much of the information now available to us is meant to confuse and coerce our opinions making being informed a contentious exercise. 

The experience of time passing on Twitter is an odd mix of hyper-immediacy, in terms of breaking news and new tweets, and a circular pathway of going back to old threads, tweets and conversations to re-engage or dig up “data” to attack or assist in a new argument. Television news conversely was an ascending “timeline” of information where the producers controlled “time” by deciding what was “breaking news” or which bits of history deserved a spot light. Twitter does shatter that continuum in ways both positive and negative.

AN INSATIABLE APPETITE FOR INFORMATION DOESN’T EQUATE TO UNDERSTANDING

Once you have all the information in the world at your fingertips what else is there? The answer paradoxically is: more! Metadata becomes a topic of lay discussion. Apps track minutes, locations and activities that are then turned into even more information in the form of graphs, charts and think pieces. Data is sliced further into sections and new sub-fields of analysis and interrogation spring up to attempt to bring order to further floods of information created from existing information.

Even before the 21st century began we’d been assigned a collective mental state of duress presented as a social norm. Talk a step and check the news, check the scores, check your email, check your texts, oh sh*t is that a spaceship?! (Remember to breath) Check your FB, check your Twitter, New Cold War? Check your snapchat, check your Uber balance.

Information overload is a physical state your brain stresses its schema in order to present information to your conscious mind in a useable fashion. This stressed state is not amicable in producing rational schema:

Humans are natural story tellers. If there is too much data then facts will cease in importance.

The narrative we create in our minds remains king. Information contrary to the scenery we develop is treated as either jester or traitor. The narrative remains on track with the exceptions of truly catalyzing events which alter our ability to hold a certain world view.  Whether or not we are trustworthy narrators remains a question only answered when we analyze ourselves, the information we consume and the reciprocal nature of information production and consumption.

 

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