Is there really more information available to humans now than ever before, and is this dangerous or good?

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13 February
01:12
13 February
20:32

Technological developments of the 19th and 21st centuries have certainly made more and more information available to humans. The telegraph was the first ever medium that didn’t need a human in order to transmit a message (before that, there were exceptions like fire signals and post pigeons, but these never became the main form of communication in any media environment).

Today, global digital networks have made it possible to get information from a lot of different channels simultaneously. So we can really say that there is more information available to humans, and it is available faster.

Marshall McLuhan, the first major communications theorist, developed the concept of the “global village” - this refers to a world in which information is so easily available that anyone can access it, and in this “village” there is no difference between the milieu of a London-based student and someone who lives in a very remote part of the world. McLuhan died in 1980, and a lot has changed since then. Today, global digital networks have made it possible to get information from a lot of different channels simultaneously. So we can really say that there is more information available to humans, and it is available faster.

  • Video: Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous lecture “The Medium is the Message” from 1977

Now, is this good or bad? On the one hand, there are a lot of positive effects.

First, more information helps in scientific research by augmenting observations we can make, and by allowing us to take more details into account.

Second, more choices have become available to regular people. Media theorist Joshua Meyrowitz’s conception of the “generalized elsewhere” refers to the possibility of freeing human’s social relationships from physical locations because the other places and other social relationships become available.

Third, more information not only gives us the choice to change something, but it can make us less xenophobic towards other people, other cultures, other countries. New information technologies can make visible things which were invisible and marginalised before.

We cannot forget that increase of availability of information does not bring about total freedom, there are a lot of mechanism invented by humans to decrease the availability of certain types of information, or information about certain topics or groups.

There are examples of how censorship regulates the availability of information to maintain the invisibility of some social groups, which makes them marginal. So we cannot forget that increase of availability of information does not bring about total freedom, there are a lot of mechanism invented by humans to decrease the availability of certain types of information, or information about certain topics or groups.

On the other hand, access to information does not mean that this information will be perceived, analysed, evaluated, and used. Along with big list of positive effects of information availability, there is the problem of information overload. This problem can be explained with the Goldilocks Law of inverted U-curve:

The x-axis is the intensity of information, and the y-axis is effectiveness with operating with information. There is always a turning point where the increase of intensity is followed with decrease of effectiveness. There are a lot of studies in management and corporate communications which shed light on problems of information overload in the process of decision-making (see, for example, this great review by Eppler and Mengis, which goes over the literature from organization science, accounting, marketing, MIS, and related disciplines). In this field, and also in fields where very accurate decisions are needed (such as surgery, piloting, or trading on the stock market), information overload is really very dangerous. But the effects of information overload on social development and everyday life are more controversial.

In fields where very accurate decisions are needed (such as surgery, piloting, or trading on the stock market), information overload is really very dangerous.

As for social development, already in the middle of the 20th century Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton wrote about “the dysfunction of narcotization” of mass-media. This means that people are so overwhelmed with information that there is no place for real social action. Around 40 years later Neil Postman said that information overload is very dangerous because it leads to blurring the picture of the world. People are disoriented by a flood of information and cannot differentiate the truth from a lie. The idea of “post-truth” is one effect of the information overload (for more on post-truth, you can check out this answer).

  • Video: Communications scholar Neil Postman talks about "informing ourselves to death" in an interview

What about information overload in everyday life? Well, there is no dramatic evidence that this is something inherently negative. A study conducted by Eszter Hargittai, Russell Neuman & Olivia Curry showed that the average person in the USA usually does not complain about the information overload and perceive the “information tide” as positive change. This does not mean that there is no information overload, but it means, from my point of view, that people can adapt to information overload in their everyday life. My own research shows that there are plenty of digital practices which can help people overcome the information overload. So it is not so dangerous, but it actually does influence human life.

What about information overload in everyday life? Well, there is no dramatic evidence that this is something inherently negative.

From this perspective, all our culture (from censorship to everyday practices of media usage) could be seen as a kaleidoscope of forms, in which humanity adapts to the increase of information available.

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