By Gary Berg-Cross
It’s not your parent’s news cycle. Between the jolt of Earthquakes to our attention, a slow moving hurricane that just might wash out our beach resorts or dismantle a major city we are in one of those super-busy News cycles. Add to this the Libyan situation which mixes war, tyrants, democracy and oil and it’s all too much making it feels like the cognitive counterpart to overeating at some junky food buffet. But its hard to resist watching what is unfolding, which seems as hard to resist fried onions.
It’s been a summer news buffet starting with politically high stakes showdowns like the US debt ceiling drama. At times we have been on watch for imminent implosions of such as with the Greek or Italian economy. Important topics, all too often covered in a sleazy, political way. We have become hyper-vigilant after our credit rating took a hit and people pointed heated fingers without much light. The series of sudden stock market plunges was juxtaposed with the creeping famine in the Horn of Africa. Any of these would normally have held the front pages and commentator attention for days, even weeks. But this buffet cycle they are pushed off by scandal stories like the Murdoch affair or the Norwegian massacre.
It’s a head spinning news overload. Stories step on each other so fast that reflective time is lacking to digest seed information that often rings of half truth and innuendo. There are so many channels of info that the low achieving popular push out the more thoughtful channels and
commentators. The result for the consumer is a stuffed head lacking in healthy, meaningful knowledge. Are they really cutting the small budget of the National Endowment for the Arts & the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to reduce the deficit in a meaningful way? The effect is what one Guardian Reporter called “news twilight.” That’s a condition where there is little story follow up, so one cannot even be sure what has been confirmed and what has not. Information, especially TV just spews by and there isn’t time to reel it back. So it just passes into memory as a fragment without analysis. I was reminded of a vivid version of this as we approach the 9/11 anniversary. Brewster Kahle (founder of the Internet Archive & the Open Content Alliance, a group of organizations committed to making a permanent, publicly accessible archive of digitized texts) was discussing their effort to building a library archive that allows people to go back and analyze and understand TV and Internet materials, that we can have critical thinking about what is broadcast on television or across the Web. One project is "Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive," which catalogs 3,000 hours of domestic and international TV news footage from 20 channels from the week around September 11, 2001. Kahle was asked about the snippet showing Palestinians celebrating on the streets after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Most of us didn’t hear or see Palestinian Ambassador Manuel Hassassian responding that;
“Palestinians were totally shocked by what had happened. Israel immediately started showing footage, footage that were not related to jubilation by Palestinians about the innocent victims of September 11. The footage that they showed is when Palestinians, in 1993, went down the streets, gave the soldiers the olive branch, and they were in festivity that peace is around the corner. OK? So there was a mix-up there. It was not the Palestinians rejoicing what happened on September 11th.”
Which version is the truth? Honestly I don’t know. Kahle’s archive apparently doesn’t yet go back to 1993 on this item. It’s not easy to go back, go capturing information going forward is possible. It’s just going to be one giant archive.
I’m a fan of archiving, libraries, information and easy access to it. So I will be watching the path of Hurricane Irene. But unexamined medium without library discipline and critical analysis is often a poor diet. When the earthquake shook my world I got on Twitter to find out what the collective cloud of tweeters knew. It was a start and soon I had a link to a definitive USGS site for FACTS. I later read in WAPO that minutes after the quake there was an article about it posted on Wikipedia –
“Wikipedians needed just eight minutes to cooly consign the “2011 Virginia earthquake” to history — the elapsed time between the temblor and the first bulletin in the online encyclopedia.”
Not everything that was posted was accurate, since some had anti-Washington message, but the editors corrected it. Great!
Twitter and Wikipedia can be informative and empowering if not enlightening. But too much of contemporary Western societies now lives on a diet of information overload. This is stressful, reducing intellectual performance and resulting in poor judgments. These are symptoms of a new concern in the Information Age which some call cognitive overload. This is a term originally used to describe the state noticed earlier among computer workers. Now we are all highly multi-tasked and as a result experience distractions & stress. We all may experience a form of cognitive overload called “technostress” from the abundance of information that we can’t easily incorporate into our normal schedule. Everywhere there is information being thrown at us. The naked, human information processing system can’t keep up and adequately digest one tragedy before another
happens. It is compounded by new means of communicating which is a major contributing factor to people’s super-saturation with vast amounts of information instantly served via Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
Like all advances these offer their challenges and are part of an enlightened road we started on centuries ago. The original Encyclopedie was a step towards information overload by a quality team of writers. You could argue it put us on the road to information overload. But unlike our current media diet is was a very structured one bound together as they said with a progressive principle, “only by the general interests of humanity and the sense of mutual-good will.”