Is our increasingly technological media world giving us so much information that we are distracted from pursuing independent and in-depth knowledge? It appears that our country’s president believes that. In May, President Barack Obama gave a commencement speech at Hampton University in which he, the very same president that leveraged online information channels to win his current post, said:
“‘You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter,’ he told the students. ‘And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work – information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.’”
President Obama seems to be criticizing the media, technology, video games and the internet in one fell swoop, lumping it all into an “information” category. When did having access to more information become a bad thing? Is not good to hear many sides of a story so we can form our own opinions? And if the information comes to us in an entertaining way, doesn’t that just make us engage with it more?
The discussion that sprung on the internet following this speech was surprising: while many were quick to defend the technology, most agreed with President Obama and felt they were constantly attempting to manage information overload, with no time for processing and understanding. This brought to mind the two-year-old The Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (which has developed into a book just released this month entitled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (see the Ms. Adverthinker review of this book here) Some highlights from the article supporting President Obama’s opinion:
“…media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And 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.”
“A new e-mail message…may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”
“Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives-or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts-as the Internet does today.”
And, an excerpt that provides an argument for the other side:
“In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”
One commenter had an interesting perspective in favor of the information abundance we are experiencing:
“…it may not be that the internet is making us stupid but making us more demanding. Before the internet we were given a limited number of topics that we could review from a newspaper, television, magazine etc. Since they were limited in scope they needed a greater amount of depth and description. However now that we can delve a wider range of topics there is no need for such depth. In fact if a person was to spend as much time on any given topic today as was 50 years ago or more it would be hard to stay up to date on the numerous happenings that are going on. No longer are people simply expected to know what is going on in their home town on a day to day basis, but all the important events of the modern world….So it is really a question of balance and of need. Is it truly necessary for us to wrap our minds around each topic that we stumble upon on the net, or is it more important to simply grasp the main points of each topic? In today’s world it is no longer necessary to be intimately familiar with each topic, I can say that I have often found it better to skim information so that I am aware of it’s existence, then when I find myself in need of it I can pull it up more quickly.”
The debate is an interesting one that has spawned books, articles and comments galore. The access to information is empowering. The knowledge we gain is the power. The question then becomes, are we turning that information into knowledge? Perhaps we are in the midst of an evolutional shift: those that can learn to navigate the information streams and turn them into applicable knowledge are the ones that survive.