The Song Remains the Same
Kids these days and their telegrams >:[
And meanwhile, you're 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, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- (laughter) -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

— Barack Obama
Speech at Hampton University, 2010

The world is for purposes of "intelligence" reduced to a village, and the village gossip is discussed continuously and without delay in every house. A crime committed in Paris at midnight shocks Calcutta or Melbourne at breakfast, and a catastrophe caused by a jerry-builder of New York wakes in two hours the sensation of pity throughout the civilized world. Can that be altogether good? Certainly it increases nimbleness of mind, develops curiosity, helps to waken men out of the slumberous condition in which the mental faculties grow torpid; but it does this at a heavy price. All men are compelled to think of all things, at the same time, on imperfect information, and with too little interval for reflection. It is rumor rather than intelligence which is hurried so breathlessly across continents and seas


We doubt if even statesmen escape the new temptation of the public to look out upon the world as a great stage, where something exciting is always happening, where " interest " is more concentrated than in actual life, but where everything, even a catastrophe or an explosion, is felt to be more or less unreal. Gladness is lost in excitement, sorrow is soothed by interestingness, and thought is drowned in an instinctive rush of the feeling that the scene went marvellously well. The faculty of emotion wears itself out, and that of reflection is disused, until the jaded spectator asks for sensations to quicken his blood, and half-pardons the Masai for killing Dr. Peters, because for half-an-hour the event has made him feel more alive. This unnatural excitement, this perpetual dissipation of the mind, this frittering away of feeling on the scenes of an opera, must in the end injure the conscience as well as the intelligence

— Walter W. Skeat
The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Vol. L, 1889

So this is not a new idea. The question, I guess: is it accurate? Was it accurate then? Did we become more prurient, less empathetic, more distracted because we had access to instantaneous news over a telegraph wire? Or, is it just that every new transformative technology becomes the carrier of the same old burden? A hundred years from now, will there be editorials decrying how distracted and distant we are from people (as Lord Salisbury says, "there is a strange feeling that you have in communicating constantly and frequently day by day with men whose inmost thoughts you know by the telegraph, but whose faces you have never seen") now that everyone is directly plugged into the Great Link?

Not only do I not know the answer, I admit it isn't clear to me how an answer can be found. It's certainly entirely possible that Mr Obama is correct, and the new style of information dissemination is radically different than the kind that bothered Skeat. I have said in the past that I think the ability to pick and choose information sources tends to bottle us in, and in fact more and more people now seem to be realising that, given unfettered access to information, people still choose the sources of information that agree with them personally.

On the other hand, if you want to make some money (or get some quick hits to your blog), the safest way is to pontificate in a regretful tone about the domination of the Internet in our lives. This is how Douglas Rushkoff and Nicholas Carr have made a name for themselves, and it appears to be a popular topic for everything from the New York Times to the Economist to muse on before concluding that the deluge of information is slowly but surely wrecking our lives.

Myself, I'm not so sure. Is it a problem that we're more distracted? That we spend less time trying to recall rote facts and more time thinking about those facts, because we can pull up on Bing? Will the result be a pulling back, a growth of a "slow information" movement to parallel the "slow food" one? Given how important "multitasking" is to people, both on their phones and off, I have my doubts.

Too, although people are getting their information from different sources, I don't wholly know the ramifications. It seems possible to me that if there are trends—towards lessened privacy or greater, towards greater energy independence or lesser—these trends will continue to develop regardless of John Stewart or Bill O'Reilly. In that sense what may occur is a stasis of, for instance, the government, with more rapid movement by individuals or smaller groups (indeed, this is what we have seen in many technological issues, such as those represented in intellectual property or privacy issues).

Although in the past I have said that politics has become more sectarian and therefore more fractious, it now occurs to me that there are two objections to be raised to this. The first is that it presumes that this is, ipso facto, problematic. But perhaps it is not. Perhaps the stagnation that comes from that sectarianism in large organisations is a form of evolutionary balance, a check that cuts off large and unwieldy bodies from making a hash of things where smaller and more reactive forces can intervene (consider: would the DMCA have looked as it does today if people had the same access to information they do now?).

The second is that, now that I think of it, it would tend to imply that a similar trend must be occurring in, for instance, industry. Is it? Have, for instance, Microsoft, Nokia and General Motors' falls from grace been marked by an inability to change direction because of polarising influences (because, really, increased access to preferential information should mark all such polar issues, not merely political ones), or is the threat overblown? Or, again, if that is the reason for their decline, is that a bad thing?

And what is the role of technology in all this? Offhand, I'd suppose we'll muddle on as before. The weight of public opinion is against Rushkoff, Carr, and Obama, at least to the extent that, rather than hemming and hawing about it, most people—including most young people—are just getting on with their lives, having happily incorporated technology (with all its distractions) into it. But who knows. What do you think?
7.07.2010 - 12h30

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