promoting the unwanted, redheaded stepchild that is individual liberty

Information Overload? Obama Tells Graduating Class TMI Becoming a ‘Distraction’

In media on May 10, 2010 at 9:51 pm

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.

  1. Jennifer,

    So, the context is education. The President is right that information overload can have a negative effect on education. The trick of course is how to be selective of that information so that its very quantity does not constitute a distraction.

    As we all know, the internet IS a distraction, and a dangerous one, what with phoning and even texting while driving. The mere availability of instant communication has become compulsive behavior for many people. One might even mention that blogging, as I am finding out, can be the same.

    Certainly in the information age there seems to be less time than in the “old days” for reflection, less time for absorption of meaning. This can’t be good, but that is beside the point. Barring some catastrophe that shakes the foundations of civilization, the internet is here to stay. Better then to speculate about how to handle this new tool than to disparage its existence.

    The invention of the printing press, the steam engine and radio and television were no less profound, and there are bound to be more changes ahead. But I do see this explosion of information-availability as affecting education and the very fabric of our lives in a profound way. Examples for the good: search engines, Wikipedia, the Institute of Medicine site, news, e-mail, and financial transactions (checking, investment). For the bad: i.d. theft, quackery, terrorism, fraud, the facilitating of political extremism (tribalism), and financial transactions (think derivatives).

    I believe that Diderot could be right and that we are already somewhat down the path he feared, because I think the Education Establishment is catering to the variety of information rather than core wisdom. At one time, back in the 50’s, a popular continuing education course was a study of the Great Books of Western Civilization. That is pretty much ancient history now, no pun intended. Too bad. What has not changed is that what young people learn in el-hi will set their course for the rest of life, that is, learning basic principles on which to make decisions. One symptom of dysfunction in this regard is that too many bright students choose finance as a major because their prime objective is material gain. I wonder what those executives at the SEC thought of their lives when, after achieving law degrees, their jobs were so empty of meaning that they consisted mainly of surfing the web for porn?

    I note that el-hi schools now provide, with pride, computers and interactive boards, but if we are not careful the technology may be a distraction to learning itself. If we allow the distractions of the internet to overwhelm its benefits, all our lives will be poorer for it. I wonder, how can a student who can copy and paste on the computer really learn to write his own material? And how can the teacher really tell what is original?

    A good education, in my opinion, should enable a person to achieve the full potential of their talents, whatever they might be, and secondly, to be a good citizen in the fullest democratic sense of that word. That will require more than glitz, pretty graphs and access to all the electronic graffiti that is the web. It will require the self discipline that comes from a rounded education based on the BEST thought of civilization, not on access to ALL thought.

    The bottom line is deeper than access to vast information. It is a matter for a philosophy that can be taught and learned, and so I will offer these poetic thoughts which reinforce my belief that education is an art that delivers this message: It is not the goal that matters most, it is the journey and how you handle it:

    And now I’m glad I didn’t know
    The way it all would end the way it all would go
    Our lives are better left to chance, I could have missed the pain
    But I’d of had to miss the dance
    (-The Dance, Garth Brooks)

    It’s the heart afraid of breaking
    that never learns to dance
    It’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance
    It’s the one who won’t be taken
    who cannot seem to give
    and the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live
    (-The Rose, by Amanda McBroom)

  2. Any time a politician declares there is too much access to too much information, my thoughts run along the lines of “an educated and informed public is difficult to control and force to conform”. Perhaps I’m just too distrustful and cynical.

  3. You are right, information overload is not new to us. No one should be alarmed with that because that is the product of the human mind in its attempt to search for knowledge essential for human living. The president maybe was just very pessimistic about it. But at any rate, we need to be selective of the information and the sources of information that can facilitate learning. He presented a good point but I believe he is more concernd with cleaning up the mess his administration is doing. It is undeniable that there are many Americans who do not like nor appreciate his manner of governance. His message is subtly this: “don’t believe those who throw destructive criticisms to the administration!”

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