The Human Condition:

Information Saturation – March 24, 2013

I am repeatedly amazed by how different our lives are in the 21st century from the way people lived even 100 years ago. We can count through the advances: the increase in available energy per capita; proliferation of small motors and computer controls in daily living; rise in air conditioning and climate controls in the home and workplace, and in casual places like restaurants and shopping malls; advances in medical technology available to the wider population; shift from physical to mental and then to imaginative labor and skill sets; and so on. But today what captures my thoughts is the amount of information that is freely available to the average person. Since the creation of the internet and its adoption in daily life, information saturation leads all the other advances of modern technology by at least an order of magnitude. Photons, electrons, and digital technology have set our minds free.

Consider the life of the average person in the advanced western societies in 1913. Many people, perhaps even most, lived rurally and worked in agriculture. Although the electric light had come to the cities and towns, it was still struggling to arrive in the countryside. Radio had been invented, but it was still limited mostly to the dots and dashes of Morse code—the great radio shows and voice plays would not come into fashion until later, in the 1920s. Wealthier homes might have a hand-crank Victrola and a collection of Bakelite records, but they were mostly for music.1 Many homes had telephones, but their use was limited to emergencies and important business, and many of those homes were also on a party line, where your business belonged to everyone else who might be listening in, up and down the wire.

For news of the day and hard information, people relied on three sources: the local newspaper, books in the home or borrowed from the public library, and local gossip shared after church, grange meetings, and other communal gatherings. While we all cherish the notion of young Americans following Abe Lincoln to become self-educated by reading from the great books by lamplight, I think the reality was much as it is today. Reading books for information and pleasure was and remains an acquired taste. Many have it and cherish their favorite authors,2 but many others were, and are, too tired or restless after a hard day’s work to immerse themselves in a book and instead went off to play games, to engage in conversation—often lubricated by alcohol—or to bed.

All this would change, and the changes would accelerate, after two world wars forced the industrialization and urbanization of western society and culture. But 1913 was still on the cusp, full of potential for information and other technologies but not really exercising their long legs.

Consider now the life of the average person in the advanced western societies in 2013—and of people who might be called “upper middle class” in formerly “third-world” countries like India, China, and much of the Middle East. Electricity, radio and television broadcasts, and the internet are ubiquitous. Moreover, with the ascendance of digital technology over analog means of information storage, the multiplicity of devices for transmitting and displaying text, voices, music, photographs, and video images collapses into a single receiver that, regardless of its shape or advertised function, is actually a small computer with a display screen, speaker, and wireless link.3

Depending on how much existing music, how many paper-published books and film-recorded movies other people are willing to digitize and make available through the internet—not to mention the new music, books, videos, and other content that homebound creatives are preparing and packaging all the time—that single device in the average person’s pocket and in the palm of his or her hand can retrieve and display literally the entire recorded history of humankind, plus the ongoing beat of new advances, discoveries, insights, sights, and sounds. The storage capacity—which lives somewhere else, in someone else’s computer drives and memory, and then who cares where?—is essentially limitless. The access here and now is limited only by the bandwidth of the device in hand and the service to which it is linked.

All humans live in their minds. We think, remember, mull over, and experience only what reaches us through our eyes, ears, and other senses. For the hunter-gatherer wandering in forest and plains, the influx of information was only what one person could see and experience for him- or herself or learn by talking with other members of the tribe and people met along the trail. Once humans settled in villages along the river bottoms, began farming, and started writing things down, the average person’s information base started to include texts written in the past or at a distance, usually by strangers. This level of communication persisted for 5,000 years, with the occasional intrusion of a traveling bard or king’s herald, until Gutenberg started printing on paper with movable type. Then the onslaught of outside information got under way, first with cheap Bibles and a resulting religious revolution, then with popular authors and bound books and periodicals. The flood of new information included texts both great and small, serious and flimsy, full of certified, peer-reviewed absolute truth and outright, outlandish, absolute balderdash.4

But for all this immersion in information, are we better informed?

Certainly, we’re faster informed. Where once news traveled from town to town at the speed of a horse and from continent to continent at the speed of a sailing ship, now it travels at light speed. And, in this new century, it arrives in the palm of your hand rather than at the newspaper or telegraph office. With such speed and ease, first, more of the news gets through. We can hear the details of daily life, the ins and outs of politics and economics, from Europe and Asia, instead of just the major events like the fall of governments and election of popes. And then, we also hear the original story as it was sent, not some compressed and possibly garbled version.

In my generation we have become accustomed to the you-are-there-ness of television and movies, epitomized by the live broadcast of humankind’s first step on the Moon. We know not only the news but also the look and feel of foreign countries and cultures. And more humans have seen the vistas of Mars in pictures during the past decade than ever saw pictures from Antarctica or Mount Everest during all of the 20th century.

But better informed? Certainly, the average person is more literate, more comfortable dealing with abstract ideas, more conversant with a wider world, than at any time in the human past. But all this access to information has not, in my estimation, given the average person a more solid base of real knowledge, something upon which to build a career or a reasonable life. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

First, as noted above, while we have more information at our fingertips, we also have more misinformation, deception, and absolute falsehoods. The old-time book and newspaper editors, who understood they were catering to a reading class that could be presumed to have a pretty solid knowledge base, knew what they could get away with and where bending the truth too far would lead to a break in the reader’s confidence in the source. But today, when just everyone is reading and texting and googling and tweeting, a lie or an intentional half-truth might bounce off a few hard heads—even a majority of hard heads—and still be accepted as gospel truth by a largish fraction of the gullible population. So, as an unpoliced content provider in the Wild West of the internet, hey-hey, go for it!

Second, having the entire database of human knowledge and experience at your fingertips does not inspire many people to dive right in and sample the smorgasbord. Rather, human nature assumes that, since the information is already there and can be accessed anytime, why bother looking it up and learning it now? Why not wait until you need it? Consider that a million people probably lived within easy traveling distance of the New York Public Library for most of the last century, and yet how many of them visited on a daily or weekly basis to soak in its riches? Having answers that outrun your curiosity by a factor of a thousand to one is not necessarily a good thing.

Third, not everyone wants the truth. Few of us in any age are on a crusade to know absolutely, positively the exact nature of what’s going on around here. Scientists and philosophers, perhaps, and now and then an account, auditor, or government commissioner. But most of us are more comfortable with a truth that fits our personal world view—which in itself has largely been acquired through casual reading and television viewing, supported by a few slap-dash investigations.

Fourth, we are imaginatively projective beings. Humans know that the world’s knowledge base is too much for anyone to know thoroughly. And whatever can be known with that absolute, positive certainty we might hope to achieve is going to be either too mundane—“water is wet,” “the ground is dirty”—or too intellectually abstruse—“E=mc2,” “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—to be of much practical use. For everyday living, which is what most of us do, a mix of knowledge and folklore, practical observation and the cautionary tales grandma used to tell is all we really need. Most of us know enough not to try and pet the little snake with the buzzy tail, but we don’t need to memorize a catalog of the world’s venomous reptiles, the chemical formula of each kind’s venom, and the precise details of its effect on the nervous system.

Fifth, we are inveterate gossips, and nobody likes a know-it-all. Seriously, with all the world’s history and knowledge of subjects like medicine and astronomy, economics and classical literature, Mesoamerican culture and Hindu sacred texts available on reputable, university-supported, scholar-led databases, why do so many of us spend our time on Facebook and Twitter? Because aside from the knowledge of scholars, we hunger for bits and pieces about the people around us. It’s built into our genes. We are people watchers and people talkers.5

All of this is not to condemn human nature, or to wish that we all had higher interests and more serious purpose, or that the internet, the libraries, the publishers, and the promoters of culture should somehow be required to produce better content with more certification. Humans have gotten along just fine for the past 60,000 years (as H. sapiens) or four million years (as various kinds of developing primates) using the wit and intelligence they were born with.

Does that mean all this new technology, this speed, multiplicity, and richness are being wasted? Oh, no! We are all happier for knowing the wealth is out there, within our grasp but not necessarily requiring us to take hold of it. Each of us is free to enjoy as much of the banquet and the passing carnival as we want. And as a wise person once said, “Enough is as good as a feast.”6

1. Victor recordings were how Enrico Caruso became a beloved tenor in America. 1. 2. And for that, as an author myself, I thank them and express my deepest appreciation.

3. For an overview of this convergence, see my blog post In the Palm of Your Hand from October 21, 2012.

4. The popular joke these days is, “They can’t put it on the internet if it isn’t true, right?”—because we all know the internet is full of crap. (And I invoke Sturgeon’s law again: so is 90% of everything else.) But the same warning applies to published books and periodicals in the centuries leading up to the 20th. Book and newspaper editors might be wizards at regularizing style, grammar, and punctuation, but they are as susceptible as anyone else to bias, rumor, and false beliefs.

5. I learned this long ago in preparing layouts with photos for magazines and newsletters. A person’s eyes are drawn to the lightest, brightest colors and highest contrasts in a photograph—unless faces are available in the image, and then the eye goes right to them. One might even guess that the eye is drawn to lightness and contrast because those are the marks of a face against most backgrounds. Our brains scan the surrounding jungle and the city streets for signs of danger, and in most cases the danger comes from the nearest human or any pair of close-set eyes—jaguar, lion, leopard, or other predator—that may be watching you.

6. I can find several references for this quote. I first heard it from Marthe Keller’s Eastern European character in a spy movie from the 1980s, The Amateur (recommended, by the way). But I think the original may go back to an English proverb once voiced by Mary Poppins. It certainly sounds like her no-nonsense approach to life.