THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER Musings on the Perils of the Information Age

THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER Musings on the Perils of the Information Age

March 8th, 2012 // 11:01 pm @

Hannibal B. Johnson

The “Information Age” is now firmly ensconced. We are awash in its brackish, untamed waters, buffeted by waves of data at every turn. As with water, separating out the undesirable contaminants requires a process akin to purification, a kind of processing that culls the important, meaningful information from the fluff. While dealing with this information tsunami may be frustrating, not dealing with it will certainly prove even more exasperating.

The birth of the Internet and the expansion of cable television exponentially enlarged the breadth and reach of all types of information. Data spring from many founts, sometimes in trickles, and other times, in torrents. Intuitively, more and faster
translates into “better.” Experience suggests otherwise.

“More” muddies the waters. “More” requires discernment. Volume and rapidity of flow tell us little about the quality of the information we encounter. It is difficult to appreciate individual raindrops in the midst of a thunderstorm.

Consistency and reliability are among the criteria which help us trudge through the dense fog of constant inputs, solicited and unsolicited, which daily greets us. In this consumption-drenched society, we could be much savvier when it comes to our
choices from among the sea of information outlets.

Much of what passes for truth is of questionable veracity and dubious value; so porous that it cannot withstand basic journalistic scrutiny. More troublesome still is the relative lack of attention to that which matters most. Too few of us question why so much of what has meaning for our lives (e.g., information that would enable us to become more capable participants in our democratic society; better citizens) garners scant media attention. Still fewer of us take affirmation action to fill the void.

Our world is increasingly complex and convoluted. The urge to over-simplify (i.e., “It is either black or white.”; “You are either with us or against us.”) or escape and avoid altogether, tempts all of us. Truth be told, most of the substantive issues we face fall
into gray zones, admitting of neither easy answers nor quick fixes. We have swum beyond the shallow and into the deep. More is required of each of us.

We routinely invest media with blind trust, particularly media aligned with our socio-political worldview. We believe what we see and hear, particularly if it conforms to our preconceived notions of what is real, right, and true. Scientific studies have
demonstrated that we glom onto that which fits neatly with our version of reality, morality, and truth. We should be conscious of that bias and work against the grain of self-confirmation. A smidgen of skepticism and healthy dose of alternative viewpoints
would serve us well. Caveat emptor.

In our celebrity-driven culture, much of what passes for “news” is mere gossip and adulation, a curious and superficially appealing mix of “infotainment.” We are keenly interested in the exploits of the superstars, super-athletes, supermodels, super-rich—exceptional, fantastical people. When it comes to the issues that affect our lives and livelihoods, and even the very existence of our democracy, too many of us sink beneath the surface, abdicating our responsibility to know, care, and act.

The proliferation of cable television news has also diluted that which passes as legitimate “news.” The round-the-clock news cycle, voracious in its appetite for digestible bits for viewers, yields material that is often trivial, salacious, or otherwise
inconsequential.

Many purveyors of “news” aspire to celebrity. Indeed, some would rather be news than report it. How better to get noticed than to be shrill and extreme—to cast aspersions upon those with whom one disagrees? Our culture of talking heads, “citizen journalists,” and celebrity hosts makes it difficult to ferret out “the truth” amidst an ocean of self-serving propaganda delivered in most uncivil ways.

Some networks feature narcissistic hosts whose bombast and bluster overshadow any substantive content. Complex issues are too often reduced to an absurd level of simplicity, becoming litmus tests for our liberal or conservative bona fides in this
bizarre, neatly bilateral, world.

We are complicit. We are the viewers. We should demand more.

Print media, though struggling universally, does a better job of helping us see through the information cloud by highlighting what is important. Top-notch newspapers take that editorial discretion a step further by offering thorough, detailed accounts of
meaningful, substantive events, often of local interest, and, on occasion, analysis.

It is true: All news is to some extent subjective. That said, journalistic standards do matter. Objectivity remains a noble, if never fully attainable, goal. Full disclosure of any vested self-interest on the part of the storyteller enables the reader to pass
judgment on the credibility of this or that account of a given set of events.

The truth of the matter is this: We should all do a better job of vetting our information. We should seek out a variety of sources. We should do our homework.

It has been said that “knowledge is power.” It is equally important to remember that undifferentiated information is not necessarily knowledge. Knowledge requires discretion and discernment, two characteristics sorely needed in the information age.

Like clean water in the human body, good information is essential to the functioning of our democracy. We can and must do a better job, both qualitatively and quantitatively, of regulating our intake.

HANNIBAL B. JOHNSON, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, and consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion issues, human relations, leadership, and non-profit leadership & management. He teaches at Oklahoma State University and The University of Oklahoma, Tulsa campuses.


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