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The Data Deluge

June 10, 2010

A regular reader of this blog will have noticed the relative infrequency of posts of late. The real reason for that is that family comes first for me. But if you would indulge me, I’d like to also offer a more facile and sophistical explanation to supplement the real. After all, for the purposes of this blog, what do the facts of my experience matter? By and large, if I cannot advance a thesis with the same efficacy regardless of how one perceives my authority on a given subject matter, I have not effectively communicated the point. In any event, I probably shouldn’t drown out this post’s thesis with meaningless prattle and personal detail, especially since that likelihood is the aforementioned alternative explanation for my intermittent absence.

Now then, to engage in a series of transitive equivocations: if knowledge is power and power corrupts, then knowledge can corrupt (e.g., Socrates and the Athenian youths). Conversely, if ignorance is bliss, then power is not bliss (e.g., Heavy is the head that wears the crown). And if time is money, and the love of money is the root of evil, then time is evil (e.g., ???). But then again, if power gets you what you want, then abdicating both your time and your control over your knowledge results in ignorant yet morally defensible bliss. It seems as though humanity may have tapped into the core of the aforementioned axiomatic dynamics in the context of networked societies, where we have access to literally narcotic levels of information and therefore power, time, money, and so on.

It’s fairly clear that the existence of multifarious sources and lenses of the modern media landscape allow for selection biases in information consumption by individuals who already know what slant they want to see on any given issue. That’s simply one feature of a free market of ideas and speech: you have to tolerate some “inferior” products that are trying to undercut the market equilibrium by imposing lower costs (of thinking), and you might bemoan the fact that not everyone demands the higher quality product because the costs (again, of thinking) are “too high.” But that’s not the only way that the internet is setting up blinders, according to Nicholas Carr; he argues that using the Internet as a medium actually undermines our cognitive capacities to focus, and rewires the brain for the worse.

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Not only do we have unparalleled stores of knowledge, data, current events, or anything else that could remotely resemble information, but we also have instantaneous access to it. As a result, we are used to satisfying our every intellectual curiosity without any intermediating force between us and our inquiries’ ends, validating or invalidating our processes as we go along (e.g., an older, wiser teacher who can tell you if you’re looking down a blind alley, stopping short, or using fallacious reasoning). According to this picture, we twitter like hummingbirds from one topic to the next without sufficient consideration for each topic we come across because there are simply so many to check out.

However, I think it is incorrect to attribute these tendencies to the medium rather than human nature. The point of the equivocating maxims above is to say that though it is sensationalistic and attention-grabbing to suggest otherwise, the networks themselves are not what makes humanity drift toward ignorance; technology is merely the stimulant and pliable accelerator. It is human nature that evaluates the timeliness of information at artificially high levels relative to the depth of analysis, causing the diminishing returns to attention. Carr basically tries to fault humans for not locking themselves in a room with a book. But like the free market of ideas, refusing to lock ourselves within a single work is essential for some of the best features of the web as an information delivery medium, especially hyperlinking. We can look up, fact-check, cross-reference, and any number of other academically valid and laudable activities much more efficiently and powerfully given the internet as a medium. Whether we use this power for good is simply a question of the existing mental dynamics, even if they are not inherent in the reading itself:

Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension. A 1989 study showed that readers tended just to click around aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information. A 1990 experiment revealed that some “could not remember what they had and had not read.”

For one thing, studies that are dating back to 1990 are absolutely irrelevant to today’s online activities in terms of accessibility and navigability of content. If that isn’t patently obvious, just think about how much space a modem’s load-time gives you to forget what you were doing, let alone the ability to open links in tabs. In any event, hyperlinks (as I and others use them) are just like footnotes (or maybe end-notes are more accurate since the content doesn’t appear on the same page necessarily); they provide support for the text that an active reader can pursue or choose not to as they please, just as in print. The only difference is the variability of the content that hyperlinking may empower a reader to pursue, and again it is the choices of the reader or writer to provide the distraction, not the medium. And as Tyler Cowen points out, these empirical data on distraction are all based on a researcher’s opinions of what constitutes multitasking, and do not measure the effects of a tested subject’s self-chosen or self-defined multitasking.

And because the Internet allows creators to create and consumers to consume, it really is just that accelerating force that can draw out latent human tendencies in a much more visible and democratic fashion. Clay Shirky likens our new powers online to the advent of the printing press:

The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff and not by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do for the Internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture.

In short, the fact of the press doesn’t mean that every writer will be a Shakespeare; in fact, it is quite likely that the opposite is true. Pornography and gossip far outpaced poetry in the press over the long run of the price adjustments, after all. The same is all the more true on the Internet where barriers are almost non-existent, and information comes in constant floods. The lack of barriers simply means that many more unsophisticated creators will create, and many more unsophisticated consumers will consume. We have to support this as part of the genius of unbridled and free marketplace of ideas. But what’s even better is that the Internet has search and hyperlinking, so you don’t have to actually sift and wade through all the distortion and crap to get to the gold as long as you have a trusted curator or two.

So, while I firmly believe that humans have control over the Internet, rather than the other way around, I am less certain that we have control over ourselves, which may amount to just about the same thing. I’d rather have people choose to pay more attention to one thing at a time because that one thing is so interesting, engaging, and worthwhile that it has the highest returns to attention, rather than shaming them into locking the door to the outside world in order to get them to read anything. To that very end, Alain de Botton calls for a diet of the mind, and for humans to willfully to resist the allure of junk food, hyper-current information.

So, to come full circle, I’m working on making these posts more individually worthy of your time as well as mine, rather than simply flooding the market for your attention with information that cannot possibly be consumed efficiently given the competing demands and relatively diminishing returns from any given input.

Maybe AT&T’s metered data plan isn’t such a bad idea after all.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave Schwartz permalink
    June 10, 2010 12:11 pm

    “A regular reader of this blog will have noticed the relative infrequency of posts of late. The real reason for that is that family comes first for me.”

    How dare you put family first! /sarcasm off

  2. June 11, 2010 7:21 am

    I think you’re right in attributing the failings of the internet to human nature rather than the medium. The brain is designed to make sense of any situation rapidly. And it is designed for quick rewards. That’s why self-imposing a “diet of the mind” might just be too tough to swallow (a hilarious pun? probably). We see how the world has struggled to willfully resist the allure of actual junk food, and it is the same with intellectual junk food. The internet medium preys on the brain rewarding the simplest bit of knowledge. It is less important to know something in its entirety than to know something at all. It is the primal instinct of fight or flight repackaged for the 21st century.

    As a result, the real danger with so much information is that the truth becomes harder to discern. Every month, a new study might come out touting the benefits or disadvantages of eating 5 eggs a week. But which to believe? And knowing that a new study will be out in
    another month, what is the incentive in uncovering the gritty details of who conducted the
    study or how it was conducted?

    So now you have a bunch of people with “knowledge” about what is true and what isn’t, disseminating the “truth” as a social creature sees fit – a hyperlink here or a “nah man, that stuff will kill ya” over there. If knowledge is power and people think they have knowledge, then there’s an awful lot of power in the hands of people who shouldn’t have it.

    Which brings us to the necessity for a “trusty curator”. Google comes to mind, but most people can’t even distinguish between a paid ad and an organic listing, not to mention the steep decline in clicks for every ranking below the 1st. And let’s not forget that even the great Google is plagued by the ever-opportunistic looking to scam their way to the top, offering information specifically designed to sell.

    Wikipedia is our next choice, but a recent (albeit small) study found that while its information is surprisingly accurate, it is difficult for the average person to digest. Hey, that kind of reminds of someone’s blog 🙂

    But I think the trusty curator is probably the best solution. We need someone/something to aggregate the information available and come to a conclusion. We need answers. That raises the biggest question of all…are there simple solutions/answers to most things in this world?

    Look at how the universe is constructed. On the one hand you have gravity, a beautifully simplistic explanation for most of what we observe. On the other hand you have quantum mechanics, a terribly complex explanation for all the details. Can the answer for unifying the two someday be boiled down to a simple paragraph? Can you ever say if eating 5 eggs a week is good or bad, or does it always have to be qualified with a “depending on your genes, the other foods you eat, and how much sunlight you’re exposed to”?

    Maybe that’s the solution to this deluge of data…an asterisk.

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