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Cognitive Overload on the Internet

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The Columbia Journalism Review has a good article this week dissecting a book that looks at the crisis in journalism from a cognitive standpoint. The book’s thesis, something which many have come to notice, is that the explosion of information made possible by the internet has presented a radically new challenge to our cognitive evolution, one that has deep implications regarding attention, memory, and reading habits.

At today’s rate, the Internet doubles every four years, and with it the sum total of information available at one’s fingertips. There are billions, perhaps trillions of articles to read on a wide variety of subjects, and naturally only a limited amount of time with which to read them all. This is not, strictly speaking, a new problem, and indeed it has been looming ever since the invention of the printing press. A literary critic (whose name escapes me) remarked 50 years ago: “I read books for a living. Every week, I read maybe five or six books. At this rate, with a long and full career, I can look back at the end of my life and say I read maybe 10,000 books. That’s as many that come out every month.”

Back then, you needed industry backing and real know-how in order to publish even a rotten book. Nowadays, anyone with an internet connection can run a blog, post comments on websites, and publish their own “journalism” at the click of a button. With so many voices all clamoring for attention at once, the brain finds itself overwhelmed and tends to withdraw.

This trend has enormous implications, both from a journalism-industry standpoint and from a cognitive psychology standpoint. Todd Glitin only dissects the business implications in Columbia Journalism Review, and for a wider perspective, I recommend this 3 Quarks Daily article from last month. The author comments on a variety of responses given to The Edge when it asked, “How has the Internet changed the way you think?” Some of the responses are short and illuminating:

“It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race,” [Clay Shirky] writes, half-ironically, “a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.”

In his response, German intellectual Frank Schirrmacher compares the Internet to a “Darwinian struggle of ideas”, where a surplus of information ensures only the “fittest” ideas propagate:

As we know, information is fed by attention, so we have not enough attention, not enough food for all this information. And, as we know — this is the old Darwinian thought, the moment when Darwin started reading Malthus — when you have a conflict between a population explosion and not enough food, then Darwinian selection starts. And Darwinian systems start to change situations. And so what interests me is that we are, because we have the Internet, now entering a phase where Darwinian structures, where Darwinian dynamics, Darwinian selection, apparently attacks ideas themselves: what to remember, what not to remember, which idea is stronger, which idea is weaker.

And this idea, too, throws significant doubt on what we consider “true”. Consider the response of Kevin Kelly, the former executive editor of Wired:

For every accepted piece of knowledge I find, there is within easy reach someone who challenges the fact. Every fact has its anti-fact…I am less interested in Truth, with a capital T, and more interested in truths, plural. I feel the subjective has an important role in assembling the objective from many data points.

Which is an optimistic approach. But isn’t the opposite more likely true – that with all these voices clamoring for attention, the one that ends up capturing the greatest “mind-share” ends up passing into the realm of “truth”? This need not be the most factual interpretation, or even the most detailed – it only needs to be the most popular. People tend to value the truth, or at least a reasonable approximation of it, but recent experience would suggest they sometimes value other things more, like emotional connection, validation of previous beliefs, or sheer distraction. One cannot view the massive audiences of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or the Fox News outfit without considering this conclusion.

If I were to hazard a prediction, I would say that the sum result of these trends will be the Internet allowing for everyone to have their own reality. With traditional linkages to “the outside world” (i.e. books, newspapers, and standardized narratives on what happened) being ruthlessly severed, people will soon be able to believe whatever they want, sealed in their own Internet cocoon, getting almost all their information from the same four or five sites. There are many Internet users for whom Facebook and Google are “the Internet”. Likewise with the “conservative” blogosphere, the “liberal” blogosphere, and so forth.

The end result, then, is a reductive capacity for the Internet – its impact so far has not been to spread information (though it has done that), but to reduce consensus. And with the cacophony of disparate voices, all shouting their particular “truth”, I fear we will quickly end up with no concept of truth at all.

Update: See also this CJR article on the same trend.

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Written by pavanvan

April 16, 2010 at 7:38 pm

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