We live in the information age, a time when one of the most popular career fields is “information technology.” The sum total of human knowledge is a mere Google search away. But who can honestly say that having access to more information has made his/her life better? Knowledge is power, but it comes at a heavy price.
It wasn’t that long ago, certainly within my lifetime, that news (information) was carefully curated by a specialized set of journalists whose job was to seek information, distill it, and determine how and when to best disseminate it. Space in newspapers was limited, each word was carefully selected for impact, and stories were prioritized by both page and position within a page.
Likewise, early television news was limited to a single daily half-hour broadcast on the nightly news. Most people learned everything they needed to know about national and world events in short sober reports made by not-always sober people in trench coats. More in-depth reporting took the form of weekly shows like 60 Minutes and 20/20.
In contrast, today’s news is fed like raw sewage from a fire hose. Unfiltered, unedited, with little interest in fact-checking. 24-hour news channels have no concern over space limitations, in fact their biggest concern is filling airtime. Nothing is too inane to be deemed newsworthy. And that’s just the TV side. On the internet the situation is even worse. Rather than a dedication to reporting fact, online news outlets are interested in clicks and ad views, resulting in the infamous proliferation of “click-bait” articles.
For people of my generation, when I think of journalists, I think of chain-smoking heavy drinkers in trench coats. I think the reputation for alcoholism and drug abuse among journalists had something to do with the burden of the knowledge they bore on their shoulders. They carried the weight of the world upon them. They saw humanity at its worst, and bore the burden of telling the rest of us the bad news. Knowledge comes with a heavy price.
Today, most of that burden is borne by computer algorithms that tabulate the probabilities for us based on intrusive access to every detail of our lives. You did a Google search for vacations in the Mediterranean? Let’s spoon feed you with stories of the Greek financial situation and “the 10 best beaches in France.”
The irony of this tailor-made spoon fed diet of information is that peoples’ perspectives have become narrower instead of broader. You now have the ability to read or listen to news from only the sources you agree with. This has the effect of reinforcing one’s beliefs rather than forcing you to question them. It promotes extremism and self-isolation. So much of the self-righteous smugness of today’s world stems from people never being presented with any serious challenges to their world views. It’s a matter of “I’m right, and I know I’m right because 50 anonymous people on the internet told me I’m right by liking my tweet. I blocked the ones who disagreed with me because obviously they’re just bots or trolls.”
But what has all this access to information gotten us? Are we happier now than we were before? It’s overwhelming at times to be inundated by bad news, and the proliferation of information nowadays has meant that bad news is everywhere. Maybe as a society we’re having growing pains, and haven’t yet come to terms with how to handle unlimited access to information. Given how quickly technology has changed, maybe it will take a generation or two before we figure it out.
I’m left thinking of a quote I saw somewhere. “Thirsting for knowledge and drowning in information.” Seems like exactly where we are at today.