Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Diversity and Information Overload

One of the more interesting aspects of Carr's Atlantic article and the responses in and is the effect this has on inter-group, inter-cultural relations. This is Carr's main point

What the Net may be doing, I argue, is rewiring the neural circuitry of our brains in a way that diminishes our capacity for concentration, reflection, and contemplation.

Carr is suggesting this is happening mechanistically as if the irresistable draw of the web leaves us no choice in the matter. There are global driving forces which make us want to be insatiable Netizens. As we proceed through what Mauel Castells calls a "network society" we fear being excluded from its nodes. In a response to Carr, W. Daniel Hills attributes our desire for connectedness to globalization:

Fast communication, powerful media and superficial skimming are all creations of our insatiable demand for information. We don't just want more, we need more. While we complain about the overload, we sign up for faster internet service, in-pocket email, unlimited talk-time and premium cable. In the mist of the flood, we are turning on all the taps.

We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter.

I think this is a better way of thinking about our relationship to information. Our desire to know the world around us is being outstripped by the increasing ease with which we can know it. The response to this is not an inability to reflect, but a desire to respond in real time to a rapidly evolving network of places, events and relationships.

This need to be "in the network" leads us towards what Douglass Rushkoff in his entry calls "thin-slicing" information. I admit to being a thin slicer, scanning headlines and RSS feeds to pull out nuggets of wisdom that I believe make me not only smarter, but a better global citizen. But does knowing superficially about what's going on in Rangoon, Geneva and Buenos Aires make me a better person? Am I really engaging with these "others" in a meaningful way? Larry Sanger says no:

To be limited to Twitter-sized discourse ultimately means that we will never really understand each other, because all of our minds are complex and in that way “cathedral-like.” It is extremely difficult to understand other people, unless you take a long time to study what they say. If we do not understand each other in our full and deep individual complexity, we will be invisible to each other, and ultimately incapable of real human society.

Carr suggests that Google's business model is dependent upon my believing that a "thin slicing" approach to the web is leaving me better off.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

My great concern is that this is how we begin to view diversity, as a collection of disconnected experiences that define our consumer selves. In other places, I've called this "menagerie diversity" or a diversity built upon an "appreciation of the other" rather than based upon actual engagement and collaborative work with the other. The great irony is that, as Hills points out, we are closer to each other than ever before, but at the same time we've never been further.

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