Information Explosion and Ignorance

For some time now I have been noticing media analysts theorizing that the era of the information explosion at the turn of the millennium may make people more ignorant than they were before they had expanded access to objective knowledge.  The theory is that the more people have individual control over what they read the more they will narrow their reading to whatever agrees with their own prejudices.

  I have noticed this from my experiences with some e-groups.  Not only are the new members already in agreement with the bias of the particular e-group, but the longer they are members the more biased they become until they become really extremists and finally only the extremists remain active in the group.  The others withdraw to “lurking” status or drop out.  The drop-outs, including me, then go on to some other group, which then may repeat the process.  Somehow, Sheila’s The American Muslim has escaped this phenomenon.  Why might require a study all by itself.

  This morning, I was confronted with a multi-pound Sunday New York Times in my driveway, which I dutifully skimmed through as fast as I could so that I did not waste the whole day reading it.  I have found that some of the little tidbits that I most value are not in the on-line version that comes via emailthe .  One of these tidbits was at bottom of page 10 in the section entitled “The Week in Review.”  Unsigned, it was entitled “The Rise of the Egocast.” I always read anything that has a creative new word in it, because whoever needs to create a new word usually has a good reason for doing so.

  This news item refers to the latest issue of New Atlantic magazine and Senior Editor Christine Rosen’s article, “The Age of Egocasting,” which explores the growing trend toward customized entertainment through digital devices like TiVo and iPod.  When you return to America, Abdallah, you will notice even giant billboards along the main boulevards competing for the iPod dollar.  It reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or what used to be only in science fiction.

  The growing trend toward customizing one’s interaction with the world may be strengthened by the common fear of loss of control in an era of both visual and audio overload.  According to Michael Bull of the University of Sussex in England, “People like to be in control.  They are controlling their space, their time, and their interaction. ... that can’t be understated - it gives them a lot of pleasure.  Those people with white wires dangling from their ears might be enjoying their unique life soundtrack, but they are also practicing ‘absent presence’ in public spaces, paying little or no attention to the world immediately around them.”  The same is true of cell-phones, which is why they are dangerous in cars. 

  This all leads to what one might might call the age of mass autism in which everything and everyone is so self-referential that all experience merely isolates one ever further from reality.  (Diana: I’m talking about social autism, which is a metaphorical use of the clinical definition of the autistic personality; and, by the way, do not blame Jeremy for this, because this use of the word autistic in this sense was my own invention).

  Rosen recalls the beginning of this trend in the 1980s when “narrow-casting” emerged with networks catering to specific interests, and the subsequent technologically driven era during the 1990s of 150 and finally 500-channel TV access.  In the new millennium we have reached the era of egocasting where in effect everyone can invent one’s own TV channel and never listen to anything outside it.  This is a world of near total control of what we watch and what we hear.  This differs from 1984 in that each person is the ultimate censor, not “Big Brother” in the form of Big Government or Big Business.

  The NYT tidbit explains the sociological and political result:  “As sociologists Walker and Bellamy have noted, ‘media audiences are seen as frequently selecting material that confirms their beliefs, values, and attitudes, while rejecting media content that conflicts with these cognitions.’ University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein engaged this dilemma in his book,  Sunstein argues that our technologies - especially the Internet - are encouraging group polarization. ... Borrowing the idea of “The Daily Me” from M.I.T. technologist Nicholas Negroponte, Sunstain describes a world where “you need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out.  Without difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more and no less”.’”

  The impact of this new era may affect even the internal politics of Iraq, where, as Thomas Friedman puts it in an op-ed piece in todays NYT, the challenge in Iraq is to overcome the centrifugal forces of the past so that the Iraqis can ” build a different politics around united national communities, not a balance of sects, and solidarity from shared aspiration, not a shared external enemy.”

  The biggest challenge of all, however, is to get the White House and Wall Street to escape from their self-imposed blinders (where Bush admits that he gets all his news from “objective sources,” namely, “my staff”), so that policy-makers can address the institutional barriers to equal opportunity in access to credit, both individually and nationally as the only means effectively to address the wealth gap that is constantly growing both within nations and among them. 

  As Bono put it in his op-ed piece, “Give a Little,” if the world sees America addressing economic injustice then we might reach consensus on “talking tough on poverty as a perfect rhyme for talking tough on terrorism.” 

  Unfortunately, Bono sees solutions only in moving the United states up from 22nd place in foreign economic aid, which is last among donor nations, boosted by private philanthropy only to 15th place.  Such distributive economics is almost irrelevant in addressing issues of poverty compared to the need to design institutions based on the capital theory of value, as distinct from the Marxist labor theory of value.  The capital theory of value, based on the elemental fact that machines and supporting infrastructure produce 90% of the world’s wealth, makes possible the science of contributive economics by reforming the entire field of money, banking, and credit to expand access to ownership of productive wealth.  The challenge really is not to combat poverty but to promote prosperity through exanded ownership of capital, just as the only way to combat evil is to overcome it with good.