Monday, April 11, 2011

Too Much Information?

Social critic Neil Postman contrasts the worlds of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He writes:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy (An advanced, consumerist form of tetherball played by the children in Aldous Huxley's novel).

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

In our class discussion we have mentioned the increasing amount of information available for us to "consume." Does the Networked society bring us closer to Huxley's fear that we would have so much information as to be reduced to passivity and irrelevance, or does it walk the fine line between these two contrasting, futuristic outlooks?


  1. Very interesting discussion topic, Blake. This cuts to the chase of so many thoughts I've had on this topic and, as you said, our class discussions. Is there one true answer to this question?

    I also found it interesting that Castells says on page 364: "Television frames the language of societal communication." It sets the stage for our societal topics. I wonder if Castells would agree today -- though mass communication is still mass, could he have predicted so many niches and fragments in our networked society?

  2. I would have to say that going off of my own personal experiences, that our networked society is bringing us closer to regarding everything as passive and irrelevant. Because with every piece of news that passes through out networked society is being toted as important it becomes difficult to know what really is. Thus, I would sum this up with this quote; "when everything is important, nothing is important."

  3. Very true, Mike. Sunday's Dilbert comic somewhat relates to this topic. The urgency isn't just with news, it's with every aspect of life.

    "When every task becomes important, your brain can't decide what to do next." People now generally expect things to happen immediately, to get what they want or to be able to find information immediately. That increases pressure at work to get things done as quickly as possible. I doubt that model would be sustainable long-term. It's certainly not enjoyable.

  4. I had wanted to share this video about the emergence of the Internet for the last few weeks, and Blake's post as well as these comments seemed relevant. It made me think about the concept that even a little information can become overwhelming and hard to adapt to. This video is from 1994, when the Internet was just beginning to breakthrough into society and it just goes to show how people were so amazed and overwhelmed by the new phenomenon, that it felt like a definite information overload. Even public figures (like the cast of the Today show) may typically be associated with staying on top of new technology, however that is not the case in this video.

    It kind of also reminded me of some passages from the Castell's reading this week. For example, "For all the science fiction ideology and commercial hype surrounding the emergence of the so-called 'information superhighway,' we can hardly underestimate its significance. The potential integration of text, images, and sounds in the same system, interacting from multiple points, in chosen time (real or delayed) along a global network, in conditions of open and affordable access, does fundamentally change the character of communication." (Castells, 356)