The Diminishing Returns of the Information Age

This article by Mark Roeder appeared in What’s Next, a Yale University Press publication (2011) by David and Lyric Hale. 

At the dawn of the internet age in the mid-nineties, many pundits predicted that the internet would empower billions of people to become smarter, or at least better informed, simply by making so much information easily accessible. But information is not knowledge. People do not automatically become smarter by being immersed in a sea of data any more than security guards in an art gallery become art experts through a process of osmosis. Information must be chewed over, tested, and digested before it can become knowledge. Indeed, too much information can be a bad thing. This is because the only way that most of us can cope with vast oceans of data is to skim the surface, and glean the fragments of information that seem most relevant. Many of us are able to scan vast amounts of information by jumping from hyper-link to hyper-link with astonishing dexterity.

images-5Although it may appear that skimming is simply the internet version of ‘speed reading’, this would be to underestimate its influence on the way we process information. Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic, says:

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon.’ (Carr, Nicholas, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” The Atlantic, July/August 2008)

Carr highlights one of the great paradoxes of the modern media, and particularly the internet, which is despite offering so much depth of information, it encourages our thinking to be more shallow. Reading, unlike speaking, is not an instinctive skill for human beings that is coded in our genes. It has to be learned and practiced. Over time, the way we read conditions the way we think, which in turn, rewires our brain through the process of neuroplasticity. For centuries our reading habits have encouraged us to not just broaden our knowledge, but to reflect on the human condition and the world we live in through works of literature and philosophy. Such deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking. Nowadays, however, technology is conditioning us to read in the ‘shallows’ and never dwell on one subject for too long. The playwright Richard Foreman believes this process is transforming us into ‘pancake people’ – spread wide and thin as we connect with the vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button. Indeed, the very businesses that run the internet do not like us staying on one site too long, or surfing at too a leisurely pace. This is because they derive their advertising revenue from the number of sites visited, and the faster we move from one site to another, the better

People do not just move between internet sites, they also skip from media to media – from emails, phone calls, blogs, Facebook, text messages, Twitter, television, and radio. Our evolution into media omnivores is also affecting the way we think.  A recent study led by Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University in California, investigated whether cognitive abilities might be affected by the range of media people regularly use. The results of the study were surprising, and suggest that heavy ‘multitaskers’, people who often switch between  many tasks, are actually slower at identifying changes to content than ‘light’ multitaskers. The heavy multitaskers also had more trouble filtering out irrelevant information, greater difficulty in concentrating on particular activities, and, perhaps most surprisingly, more difficulty in moving between tasks in an effective way. Up until now it was generally assumed that heavy multitaskers would be more adept at responding quickly and accurately to content changes, but the reverse seems to be the case. The researchers concluded that:

‘human cognition is ill-suited both for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaneously performing multiple tasks.With e-mails, phone calls, text messages, and online social media all competing for our attention, often against a background of television, radio, or music, our brains can reach information overload.’ (Nass, Clifford, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers, PNAS, August 24, 2009)

There are certain professions that breed multi-taskers and ‘super-skimmers’; people whose job it is scan and process information at lightning speed. Financial traders are such people. They are immersed in a sea of Blackberries and Bloomberg screens gushing out torrents of financial data which they rapidly sift through in order to optimise their trades. It is not a job for the slow or dim-witted. Traders are usually acutely bright young men. Yet, they were among the first to be drowned by the tsunami of the global financial crisis. Why? Because they could not detect the tectonic shifts occurring on the ocean floor that would generate the destructive wave. They were skimmers trying to cope with too much information. They are the personification of the diminishing returns of the Information Age.

In the 1960’s an interesting experiment was conducted that demonstrated the folly of having too much information. Two groups of people were shown a fuzzy but indistinct outline of a fire hydrant. The resolution was gradually increased for one group, through a series of ten steps. Whereas for the other group the resolution was increased over just five steps. Then the process was stopped at a point where each group was looking at an identical picture asked what they could see. It turned out that the members of the group which saw fewer intermediate steps saw the picture earlier than the group who were presented with more steps. The extra information encouraged them to speculate more about what the image was, thus clouding their judgement. Whereas the first group saw the fire hydrant more directly for what it was, unhindered by too many layers of information. (3)

The internet too, has a multilayer structure. So many layers in fact that one can easily get lost. Paul Kedrosky, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, said that internet was supposed to be ‘the great democratizer of information. It was supposed to empower individual investors, make murky financial markets more transparent, and create a new generation of citizen investors…It was supposed to shrink the world and turn it into a village, where everything happened in the public square and corruption and greed would have no place to hide. As the 1990’s mantra went, ‘information wants to be free’. This new ‘freedom of information’, however, created a giant jigsaw puzzle comprising a zillion pieces of information, that was constantly and frenetically changing. All the relevant information was there, but there was no way to look at it in a way that made sense. The internet also greatly accelerated people’s ability to make transactions, thus generating more momentum in the markets, which in turn fuelled the bubble. ‘We are in the first financial crisis of the internet age,’ said Kedrosky. ‘a crisis caused in large part by the tightly coupled technologies that now underpin the financial system and our society as a whole.’ (Kedrosky, Paul, “The First Disaster of the Internet Age,” Newsweek,October 18, 2008 ) For example, one reason for the global financial crisis was, perversely, the sheer abundance of financial information available online, which created a ‘smog’ of data. This made it difficult for even the most sophisticated financial analyst to grasp the whole picture, and comprehend the scale of the emerging problem.

The internet does not just encourage our thinking to become shallow, it also encourages it to be more narrow. This is because, unlike traditional media such as a newspaper or television show, we can choose to see only the information we want to see. So when we go online, we act as our own editor and gatekeeper for the news, and tend to screen out opposing viewpoints. In fact we often look for information and perspectives that confirm our existing mindsets and prejudices. Nicholas Negroponte of MIT calls this self-censored media product ‘The Daily Me’, which represents another step towards a world in which people increasingly isolate themselves in a bubble of self-sustaining beliefs, and immerse themselves in like-minded communities. Although we may like the idea of a debating chamber, in reality we prefer an echo chamber. In one classic U.S. study, Republicans and Democrats were offered various research reports from a neutral source. Both groups were most eager to receive coherent arguments that corroborated their pre-existing mindsets. Bill Bishop, the author of The Big Sort: Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart, says that as the United States grows more politically segregated, ‘the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups’. (5) A twelve nation study found that Americans, particularly highly educated ones, are the least likely to discuss politics with people of different views.

People’s tendency to confirm their existing beliefs encourages them to form likeminded communities on the web, such as social networking sites and virtual worlds. These communities such as Facebook, MySpace, Second Life, and the Twitterscape, help connect millions of people in environments that are conducive for building relationships. They also offer the potential for new types of democratic processes such as direct voting online, and the scope for alternate views to be put forward outside of the mainstream. The downside to web communities is they can cause people to become more cut off from the rest of society. In their paper, “Electronic Communities: Global Village or Cyber Balkans,” professors Marshal Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson said that ‘Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases … This voluntary Balkanisation and the loss of shared experiences and values may be harmful to the structure of democratic societies.’ (Van Alstyne, Marshal and Brynjolfsson, Erik, “Electronic Communities: Global Village or Cyber Balkans,” MIT Sloan School, March 1997) They warned that we should have no illusions that the internet will create a greater sense of community. The danger is that when people suppress or are oblivious to information that contradicts their existing mindset, they are far more likely to believe they are heading in the right direction, and ignore warning signs.

Perhaps one of the more disappointing, and counterintuitive, aspects of the internet is that is not the free and open marketplace of ideas that we would like to believe. Many of the world’s most popular internet news sites are owned by the major news organisations such as CNN, New York Times, News Limited, and the BBC, which tend to mirror the editorial slant from their own television and newspaper outlets. During the first quarter of 2009, websites owned by newspaper groups in the U.S. attracted more than 80 million unique visitors on average (over 40 percent of all internet users), which was a record number that represented a significant percent increase over the same period the previous year according to Neilsen Online Research. Out of the top 30 most popular sites, nine were newspaper sites. (7) In effect, we are seeing the emergence of an online oligarchy dominated by the old guard. Some media companies have invested huge resources into their online sites, such as business publisher Forbes which now employs more journalists at its Forbes.com site than at its magazine. Such online sites provide lucrative revenue because advertisers are able to more accurately track the audiences and their response rates to online advertising. People gravitate to the big established online news sites because they are distrustful of a medium that, as the host of “The Daily Show”, Jon Stewart, points out, ‘combines the credibility of anonymous hearsay with the excitement of typing.’

Meanwhile, the traditional media, particularly television news, has undergone a profound transformation in recent years. This has much to do with the way news is presented. Whereas once the media provided us with relatively unvarnished reports of what is happening with little hype, now it increasingly tends to operate as a magnifier and sensationaliser of news stories. This trend is particularly prevalent on television, where news stories are often magnified out of all proportion to their intrinsic newsworthiness, and then repeated relentlessly through the 24-hour news cycle.

The cumulative effect of these changes is to create a perceptual environment in which the world around us seems to be moving faster. Events seem to happen more instantaneously, and evolve more rapidly. They also seem to be more important and consequential, as if every news story is a big story. This makes us feel we should know about them, and so we ‘plug’ into this fast-moving machine to get our daily ‘fix’ of the news, which for many people can be quite addictive. We become conditioned to see the world as a series of rapidly escalating events which generate a powerful, self-perpetuating momentum. We voyeuristically and vicariously ride the flow of these events as they ebb and flow.

Gradually, over time, this conditioning seeps into the way we experience our own ‘real’ lives. We become more accustomed to a momentum-driven world in which we are content to go with the flow, to observe rather than participate or challenge. This is particularly so for the really big issues of our time which develop enormous momentum. We are less inclined to resist such powerful momentum and may even see such resistance as futile. It is so much easier to surrender to the flow.

This conditioning may not just be a matter of perception. Recent studies of the human brain using imaging technology (fMRI) indicate that the persistent use of communications technology activates reward pathways that have been linked to addiction. The brain appears to rewire its neural pathways through a process called ‘neuro-plasticity’. Hence there may be a biological basis to some people’s addictive tendencies for the fast-moving news cycle. This is reflected in the amount of television we consume, which now averages around 4 hours a day in developed countries (and over 5 hours in the US) – and accounts for the major share of people’s leisure time.

The momentum-driven nature of the news also means that news stories tend to take on a life of their own and become ‘stuck in the groove’. This is because when a newsworthy event happens, the media develops a storyline around it, which is then magnified and reinforced by the globally integrated nature of the media. Eventually this storyline develops its own powerful momentum, so that even when facts arise that contradict it, they are resisted or ignored, and ultimately overwhelmed by the media juggernaut which is already moving in a certain direction. This is why so many news stories, particularly big ones, seem to have a predetermined air about them. Rarely are we surprised by a sudden turn of events.

One of the most destructive stories promulgated by the media in recent times is the idea that debt did not matter because people could get richer through rising house prices. The economist Paul Krugman wrote, ‘Until very recently Americans believed they were getting richer, because they received statements saying that their houses and stock portfolios were appreciating in value faster than their debts were increasing. And if the belief of many Americans that they could count on capital gains forever sounds naïve, it’s worth remembering just how many influential voices – notably in right-leaning publications like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and National Review – promoted that belief, and ridiculed those who worried about low savings and high levels of debt.’ (Krugman, Paul, “Decade at Bernie’s,” New York Times,February 16, 2009)

Once a storyline becomes established in the public mind, even if it is false, it becomes difficult to dislodge. Long after it became clear just how serious the global financial crisis was, people were still rushing in to buy homes they could not afford and ramping up their credit card debts. It was as if they did not want to hear the bad news. This is one of the great paradoxes of the modern media: it actually conditions people to be less able to absorb real news. It is equivalent to someone who is always babbling at you and hyping everything up–when he actually has something consequential to say, you do not hear it. ‘One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early twenty-first century,’ observed the social commentator and columnist Frank Rich, ‘is Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even fifteen years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly “changed everything,” slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable.’ (Rich, Frank, “What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us,” New York Times, February 22, 2009)

The decline of news quality has not gone unnoticed by the public. A poll conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, suggests that more than half of Americans believe that US news organizations are politically biased, inaccurate, and do not care about the people they report on. (9) Meanwhile, media diversity is in decline everywhere, particular with regards to news coverage. Although there are now over 1600 network and cable channels in the US,up from just a handful 25 years ago, most of these amplify news feeds from a small number of major media companies. (10) Thousands of local, independent newspapers have closed down across the country, further reducing the diversity of viewpoints. The number of channels in the UK has increased from 11 in 1990 to over 400 today, but the number of news rooms has actually decreased. In a case of more is less, most major media companies in the western world have simultaneously reduced their independent news gathering resources while expanding their distribution networks.

This trend will continue because large media companies are finding it increasingly difficult to charge for their newsgathering activities when consumers can get most of their news for free on the internet. Also given consumers’ preference for skimming between numerous sites, and their unwillingness to be locked into expensive subscriber sites, it is likely that the media will have to develop ‘skimmer packages’ for media ‘omnivores’ and  ‘diver’ packagers for those who want to delve more deeply into one or two specialist media.  Or even a combination of ‘skimmer and diver’ packages. The development of such packages will require a high degree of cooperation between competing media and technology companies, but their development is inevitable. For such packages will provide a much needed model to ‘monetize’ parts of the internet, while at the same time facilitating consumers need to ‘skim and roam’ the rest of the net relatively unencumbered

In the meantime, however, the cumulative effect of these trends has been to create a ‘diminishing law of returns of the information age’ for both consumers and media companies. Indeed, this is the great paradox of our world today. Never before have we had access to so much information, and yet so little understanding of how to manage it.

 

Sources:

  1. Carr, Nicholas. Is Google making us stupid? The Atlantic Monthly. July/August 2008. See also: Small, Gary.UCLA neuroscientist. iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Collins Living. 2008. See also Begley, Sharon. Train your mind. Change your brain. 2007. Ballantine Books.
  2. Henderson, Mark. Media multi-taskers are in danger of brain overload. The Times. August 25, 2009
  3. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan. Penguin Books. 2008
  4. Kedrosky, Paul. The First Disaster of the Internet Age. Newsweek magazine. October 27, 2008.
  5. Kristof, Nicholas D. The Daily Me. March 19, 2009. The New York Times.
  6. Marshal Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson.  Electronic Communities: Global Village or Cyber Balkans. MIT Sloan School, March  1997
  7. Nate Anderson, Online oligarchy dominates Net news coverage. March 17, 2008. http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080317; Who owns the media? http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/democracyondeadline/mediaownership.html
  8. Frank Rich, February 22, 2009. New York Times.
  9. Pew research centre for the people and the press. August 9, 2007. Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007.
  10. Media Reform Information Centre. www.corporations.org/media/; The state of the News Media, 2007, annual report on American journalism. www.journalism.org