Yesterday, President Barack Obama gave a commencement address to Hampton University’s 2010 graduating class. The president urged students to stay “informed and engaged,” saying the American experiment “depended on the participation of its people.”
However, before bemoaning apathy and ignorance, Obama ironically bemoaned information itself, telling students they are 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.”
This 24/7 environment coupled with the explosion of technology is making information a distraction rather than a means of empowerment, according to the president.
“So all of this is not only putting pressure on you, it’s putting new pressure on our country and our democracy,” he said.
Basically, Obama is suggesting Americans today are suffering from information overload.
The idea of information overload is nothing new. In 1755, French philosopher and contributor to the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot, wrote about the explosion of information and its negative effects on the population:
“As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe.”
If only Diderot was here to witness the internet.
However, more than 250 years later, human history has been proven the French philosopher wrong.
There exists today more information and greater access to that information than ever before. But contrary to Diderot’s prediction, human beings and societies have adapted to the ever increasing onslaught and access to data. We, as a species, have evolved.
As writer for the Social Computing Journal Stowe Boyd points out in his article “The False Question Of Attention Economics,” the idea of information overload is a false one:
“The human mind is exceptionally plastic, especially when young people are exposed to media and symbolic information systems at an early age.”
As technology and access to data continue to increase, so too, will information critics such as the president. However, what these critics fail acknowledge is the power of the human mind to collect, sort and store information deemed relevant.
To be sure, the human mind cannot absorb and store a limitless amount of information. But in a day an age where technology is exploding, let us remember that knowledge is power and push the human mind to its limits.