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This is Matthew Dominic Hunter's 'blog.

 

Surfing the Infosmog


infosmog -- The overload of information (and hype) now available in the web environment which makes it so hard to efficiently find quality information.

For those of you who still live in the Age of Television, even basic cable systems offer about 100 channels of 24-hour programming. You can't possibly watch it all. And from what I've seen, you can't possibly want to watch it all. Ick. Imagine if you had to spend the next year of your life watching everything that is being broadcast on your basic cable television today ... even the city council meetings.

For those of you who still live in the Age of the Printing Press, roughly 40,000 new books are published in the United States each year. You can't possibly read them all -- you'd have to read more than 100 books per day. Including every new romance novel sold by your local supermarket, and important new books on medical ethics & biological warfare. Even if you could read one book per day, you'd die before reading all the books published in the United States during 2003.

We'll ignore radio stations, newspapers, and magazines, for the moment. Obviously you can't listen to all the radio stations simultaneously.

For those of you who have advanced into the Age of the Internet ... Google claimed at the end of 2002 that its search engines held indexed copies of more than 3,000,000,000 web pages. Even if you could read one web page per minute, it would take you hundreds of lifetimes to read a current snapshot of all the information on the web (including every porn site, and every angsty high school kid's LiveJournal).

So, nobody can possibly know everything there is to know. We are all operating with limited information. Some of us pride ourselves on knowing more than average, but such pride is pointless when nobody can know even 1% of the specialized knowledge currently being generated.

The production of information is out of control.

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How should people cope with all this information? I'm generally not the type of person to tell others what they "should" do. Whether information overload is a problem for you is up to you. There are courses you can take to learn how to cope with information overload.

As for me, I happen to enjoy surfing infosmog. I enjoy exposing myself to new information via a wide range of sources. I think of myself as a meme sponge.

At the same time, I don't like feeling beholden to a few particular media sources. Subscribing to a newspaper gives that newspaper a lot of control over my daily cognitive agenda and my daily emotional responses.

At the same time, I like being able to drop out. Meditation is important to me. Unmediated perceptions are important to me. I like to focus on my surroundings, the people I care about, and the chaotic patterns of weather, plants, animals, and strangers.

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Perhaps infosmog is the main reason for the extended drop in civic participation in the United States. Most people don't even bother to vote -- perhaps they are rationally deciding that they can't perceive through the infosmog which politicians will better serve them. Those who do vote are finely divided between two pragmatic & antagonistic partisan camps whose daily rants have little to do with the real business of administering the Federal government. Legislators pass so much legislation each year that nobody can possibly read it all, especially not before the legislators vote yea or nay. The Congressional Record averages hundreds of pages per day, who would bother to read all of that? Who would understand it if they did?

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I believe we've entered a phase of the information age in which the cloud of information completely overwhelms the people who are creating it. I have no idea where this will lead. At some point the marginal value of producing more information will fall below the marginal cost, won't it? Perhaps we should focus on ways to produce value from information that already exists, via strategies of meta-informatics. Who needs a new study when most people have no idea what the old studies say?

For those individuals with free time and extra money, this virtually endless information cloud allows endless streams of observation, learning, and excitement. Boredom is obsolete.

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I suggest that it is important to learn to balance the demands of the infosphere with those of the biosphere -- do you spend more time on your computer than you spend hugging people you love? Have you forgotten how fun it is to use your non-visual senses? How do you feel if you leave your computer off for 24 hours in a row?


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DISCLAIMER: Use of semi-advanced computing technology does not imply an endorsement of Western Industrial Civilization (nor does it imply that I believe this technology was reverse-engineered at Roswell).