Humanity is informed as never before; nothing in the historical record compares. This, unfortunately, is not a particularly good thing.
The provision of information, if it is to bless mankind, must have quality control built into it… it must have a feedback mechanism with teeth. Barring that, it can spiral out of control, as, indeed, it has.
Consider that almost everyone in the modern world is flooded with information. Even the poorest people walk around with phones beeping at them a dozen times per day, delivering little packets of it. And for active people the info-delivery is far greater. Even the delivery devices themselves, smart phones, have become status symbols.
But who is providing all that information, and what price do they pay for delivering bad information?
The previous era of information delivery was dominated by newspapers; they provided most of the information for daily living. And that system, problematic though it could be, had effective feedback mechanisms. Newspaper readers paid for the information they received. And so, if they made bad decisions because of bad information, the newspaper would have a problem on their hands.
Newspaper operators feared such events. Too many cancelled subscriptions and they were in trouble. If too many people complained to advertisers, their ad revenues might tumble. And competing newspapers were sure to amplify any mistakes they had made, further inflating the problem.
So, the era of newspapers, again with all its problems, had strong correction mechanisms built into it.
But who suffers for the bad information that is delivered these days? The answer is usually “No one.”
Free Information Has A Cost
The vast majority of information flooding the world today is free: people don’t have to open their wallets and pay for it. Broadcast TV is free, radio is free, Facebook is free, YouTube is free, and so on at great length. Cable TV is purchased for sports and entertainment (even for status) as much as it is for information. Herein lies the crux of the problem.
Consider this, please:
By removing payment, we’ve also removed an essential correction mechanism.
Who is there to complain to for bad information these days? When you pay for something, the seller needs to keep you happy; when you’re getting free stuff, you’re almost in the position of a beggar.
And so we see that that once people don’t pay for it, the penalty for delivering bad information approaches zero. In other words, when information is divorced from payment, its feedback mechanism breaks. Hence my title, information is broken.
Even competitors barely criticize each other these days, because all of them are playing the same game, and can’t afford to cast aspersions upon it.
Under incentives like the ones we now see – with penalties being removed – the use of information is negatively transformed. In particular, the new model has liberated mercenary propaganda from its former constraints.
I won’t belabor things like the revolving doors between television and government, or intelligence agencies controlling stories on social media. Those things are easily found out by whomever wants to find out.
My larger concern is that there is no practical mechanism to penalize the delivery of stilted information, which has become a means of shaping minds more than informing them. When we gained “free information,” we gained this too, because the two necessarily travel together.
Please re-read and consider that last paragraph for a moment. (Thanks.)
Before I leave you, I’ll give you a solution for the present distress. It works for me, and so I suppose it will work for you as well. Here it is:
- Unplug as completely as you can. Be brutal in this, and turn off every notification and beep your phone can make.
- One day per week, and only for an hour or two, devote yourself, directly and solely, to being informed.
- During this devoted time, balance your news sources. Gather opposite opinions, and favorably consider all viewpoints.
- Consider the past results of the news providers you refer to. Don’t let their failures fall down a memory hole.
If you do this, not only will you improve the quality of the information you take in to yourself… and not only will you evade most of the manipulation thrown at you… but you’ll make yourself far more efficient. All the energy you spend checking beeps returns to you once you’re unplugged.
If there’s a flood in Houston or an approaching tornado, trust me, you’ll find out. (There were no such things as “alerts” until just a few years ago, and the human species survived it just fine.) Being pounded with fear doesn’t make you a responsible person, it makes you a disrupted person.
By doing this, you’re making yourself the correction mechanism. You’ll be playing an essential role you can be proud of.
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One thought on “Information Is Broken”
Bad information has always been prolific, as sensation always sells. Newspapers have made up stories as ridiculous as creatures being discovered on the moon, and many historians claim that the Spanish-American war resulted entirely from hysteria ginned up by “news” media.
The fact that we have more sources of information today means that we also have more sources of nonsense; this is inevitable. Luckily it’s all under the individual’s control. I choose not to own a smartphone, so never have to contend with one beeping at me all day long. I curate the sources I follow online, keeping a skeptical eye on claims made by anyone I read.
I would argue that information is “broken” only for those who allow it to be. For anyone who takes care this is a golden age of knowledge, unparalleled by any time in the past.
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