Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Triviality of Decontextualized Information

Recently, I began reading a book by Neil Postman entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. In the book, the author looks at how our modern forms of media have fundamentally changed the way people comprehend and converse about their world. In one section, he explains how the advent of the telegraph in America radically changed what sort of news is communicated to the public. Here are some excerpts from the book:
The telegraph may have made the country into "one neighborhood," but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.

Since we live today in just such a neighborhood (now sometimes called a "global village"), you may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve? For most of us, news of the weather will sometimes have consequences; for investors, news of the stock market; perhaps an occasional story about crime will do it, if by chance it occurred near where you live or involved someone you know. But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principle legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the "information-action ratio."
Not only is most of the information that we hear or read in the news not actionable or practically useful in any way, but I would argue that most of it isn't even interesting. Think about it, if you are someone who pays attention to the news, what percent of it even interests you? Personally, I like to be informed about what is happening in the world, but with the exception of occasional stories of special interest to me, or really significant events that will serve as conversation-pieces for a couple of days, 95% of the news is completely banal and trivial to me. Maybe the first time you hear about a flood decimating a town in Indonesia or the first few times you read about sensational crimes or the second time you hear about negotiations with North Korea over their development of nuclear weapons you might be somewhat interested by the news stories. But by the time you've read about the 79th natural disaster of the year, the 400th sensational murder or the 59th article about the nuclear nonproliferation treaty negotiations with North Korea, you become quite inoculated to it all. When everything is sensational and important, suddenly nothing is sensational or important anymore. Because of this, whenever we find an aggregate of decontextualized information, it is nearly impossible to regard it as anything more than trivial. With minor exceptions, it is irrelevant and uninteresting.

Neil Postman continues:
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines--sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch. Its language was also entirely discontinuous. One message had no connection to that which preceded or followed it. Each "headline" stood alone as its own context. The receiver of the news had to provide a meaning if he could. The sender was under no obligation to do so. And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable, even undecipherable. The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. "Knowing" the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.
Since most news is presented as decontextualized information and since the sender has no obligation to provide an appropriate context, each person is forced to contextualize the information themselves and determine what meaning it does or does not have. Because of the decontextualization of the information, it is always necessarily to recontextualize it in some form, either externally or simply mentally. Given the numerous demands of modern life, most people have neither the time nor the desire to manually recontextualize all the new information funneled to us each day, which leads most people to adopt one of two stances towards news and daily public information. The first option is simply to ignore nearly all new information, operating on the presumption that almost none of it is remotely pertinent or interesting. The second option is to search for a source of recontextualized information.

I believe that people's natural desire for relevant information is one of the reasons why blogs have become so popular in the last few years. According to this 2004 study, at least 15,000 new blogs are created every day. There are many sorts of various blogs, and there are numerous blogging communities that are united by interests in similar topics. Since modern technology has served to blur geographic distinctions, public discourse finds it distinctions not based on location but by topic and interest. In this way, blogs serve a threefold purpose. First of all, they serve to recontextualize information based on topic and offer commentary and interpretation on the pertinent events of the day. There are numerous economic blogs, law blogs, political blogs, philosophical blogs, personal experience blogs, social observation blogs, art-centric blogs and blogs of every other sort imaginable. Each blog owner skims through the news, other blogs, the internet and even there personal life to present information that is relevant and pertinent to their target audience. Secondly, blogs serve as a forum for discussion and debate about the various topics of the day. Most blogs accept and even encourage active commenters, and those who frequent the blog often find themselves sharing their own opinion about the current posts, which then entice other commenters to comment on the comments. Third, because of the way blogs serve as an effective method of recontextualizing information and offering a public forum for discourse, online communities are formed both on a single blog and often in the context of an entire blogosphere of individual blogs who link to other similar ones.

In this way, modern people have found a way to take the decontextualized information that inundates the web and recontextualize it in a way that serves to offer meaning and a clearer interpretation of its significance. The explosion of new blogs would suggest that people are hungry for information, as long as it presents itself in a relevant and interesting way. Additionally, the blogosphere and internet forums offer people a new way to discuss the pressing issues of our days, consider various opinions and even share their own opinions. With the deluge of daily news we have in the Information Age, what is needed is not more information but a filter to remove the useless information and a recontextualization of the information into useful and digestible bites.

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