Monday, August 01, 2005

Too much information - Warning Long Post

I canceled my satellite television. Somehow the endless choices of hundreds of programming choices no longer seemed appealing. And at times, I have even thought about canceling my Internet. I know, blasphemy. Sure I love meeting people from around the globe and I’ve enjoyed tuning into multiple perspectives, and who can resist the latest Google gadget? Yet, most of the time, this endless stream of information seems like a distraction, like a substitute for living.

I hesitate to enter another blog, filling the web world with yet another blast of 0s and 1s translated into text, images and words for your viewing pleasure. When I first heard about the Internet in the early 90s, I wondered if it would be a good thing or a bad thing. I’m still wondering.

And yet, it’s here. I’m here. And I’m still writing.

Last July, in my first blog, I raised questions about the current state of the world. I’m still thinking about those questions. For the next few minutes, I am going to describe my intuitive of sense of the world. I will avoid using references (although I most certainly have been impacted by other thinkers). I just need to write out what I’ve been thinking. You’re welcome to join me or just as welcome to tune me out because you’ve probably got better things to do. (Like checking your RSS aggregator.)

Information drowns us. Bits of data pelt our brains and ears and eyes like the continuous drip of some ancient water torture. Over time our senses deaden and we lose all ability to distinguish between drips. One drip seems much like the other drip. Just a repetitive droning: on and on and on and on and on and on.

The human body receives far more information than it can process. So it filters. It distinguishes sensations we need to know from sensations we can forget about. Otherwise we might go insane: and some people do. Some people don’t have effective filters: they may hear too many sounds, feel too many sensations, see too many things. Their mind tries to process all those bits and soon they are confused and tormented. Some persons weave all this information into strange theories of world conspiracy while others become prophets or artists.

Thank God for those filters. They help us determine the bits of information we absolutely need and the ones we can forget about.

A group of humans may begin to develop similar habits. Each human in a group is contributing information to the group. As the group grows, so does the information. At some point, there is simply too much information for everyone to process and to remain in the group: at this point some type of filter emerges to help manage the flow of information.

These filters are also known as gatekeepers. Gatekeepers manage the flow as well as the type of information entering the flow. Gatekeepers can help create continuity within the group. In fact, when gatekeepers are over-active or when we feel they use their power to oppress us, we critique the gatekeepers. We may blame our distorted view of the world on their influence and at times we may be right.

As the medieval world transitioned into a modern world, gatekeepers adapted to the growing modern culture. These gatekeepers managed the flow and type of information to the persons throughout the society. There were still a variety of groups of people but most managed to function together in a common web through the mediation of various gatekeepers who helped keep some sense of continuity in the world. (But this was not without many bloody fights!)

The first gatekeepers a person meets is normally the mother and father. They manage the flow of information to the child and provide an interpretive lens. After the family, we find gatekeepers in the local community and the church: both of which reinforce the interpretive lens and provide filters. The family, community and church are like gatekeepers within a tribe. They connect us to our roots.

But above these gatekeepers are meta-gatekeepers who control information to the tribes and help keep all the tribes in some continuity. These may include government, school systems, and press/mass media. All of these adapted and played a specific role within the modern world. Most of the time there was enough continuity between the meta-gatekeepers and the local tribes, to maintain some type of common language—even when people may have radically differing perspectives.

But not everything would or could last forever. By the end of the 19th century, a few thinkers had already begun to see past the gatekeepers. People like Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche saw cracks in the foundation of the modern world.

For over 100 hundred years, the tiny cracks gradually spread through the fabric of modern societies, and by the mid twentieth century, some people already began talking about a post-modern world. Gradually the gatekeepers lost their power. It is difficult for me to pinpoint, but I think the Watergate controversy of the 70s marked a fundamental shift for the government as gatekeeper.

Public trust in the government sank to an all time low and politicians retreated more and more into tribal positions finding it harder and harder to mediate one common vision of the modern world. Their language became so tribe bound that by the mid 90s, we could no longer even agree on the meaning of what “is” is.

Several big blows to the media as gatekeeper came with the 2004 election as bloggers consistently challenged their right and ability to effectively serve as gatekeepers. By the end of the 2004 election cycle, some people were tempted to find out their news only from members of their tribe.

I think the school system is still transitioning but it will inevitably lose its status as a modernist gatekeeper. Already non-accredited informal schools are rapidly multiplying throughout the nation. Much like bloggers, these non-traditional schools are diversifying the academic content and breaking the stronghold of the traditional gatekeepers.

In a way, all this seems like a good thing. No control. No one telling me how to think. Yet, in the absence of these gatekeepers, we lose all filters. We are bombarded with information. So much information confronts us from so many different angles, we lose our ability to distinguish good information from bad information. Thus all is information is suspect.

In such an overflow, words lose their meaning. Poetry, the art which guards our words, is forgotten. No one has time to read or think about poetry. Instead, we bathe in an a non-stop onslaught of words. From the moment we awake to the moment we fall asleep, we are bombarded with information bits. Everyone has Attention Deficit Disorder: and everyone laughs about it. Everyone is becoming psychotic.

The stress of this post-modern age will only grow as the chaos intensifies. And it will continue to intensify: for a season. The war on terror is just one sign of modern world in chaos. There are many more wars going on. Our talk shows and our governments seem like mini war zones at times with persons hurling invectives upon one another like hand grenades.

They cannot debate in any classical sense because they cannot agree on the meaning of their words, let alone what information is important and how should it be understood. All they can do is engage in verbal duels. The loudest, crassest voices often shouts down the weaker voice.

In this world of chaos, gatekeepers at every level struggle to understand how to act and how to respond. Take churches for example. Some turn to economics, believing the market drives everything. If I find my authority in the market, then I will develop my systems around the fickleness of an ever-changing market. Some churches for example, change their worship styles and preaching styles and architecture to fit the demands of today’s market. Of course, that market may change tomorrow.

Others look to tradition as a source of authority: either they grow stiffer in some fundamentalist expressions of their faith or they embrace ancient forms and seek to breathe new life in them today.

This chaos simply cannot go on forever. As a Trinitarian Christian, I anticipate the rebirth of all things even now. I look forward with hope for we are truly moving toward the hope of God fully revealed to man.

Thus chaos will not overrun the earth. Eventually, new gatekeepers will emerge (or the old gatekeepers will re-emerge with newly defined filtering systems). At some point, our desire for continuity will overcome the extreme neo-tribalism period we are entering, and we’ll find new ways to connect our various tribes in some form of common life. Either we’ll find a way or a greater power will impose it and the people will accept it. This new world will probably mold some aspects of modernism, pre-modernism and possibly other newer perspectives into a way of seeing that provides some level of continuity for the multiple tribes.

But for now, we live in a growing cacophony of data. The question for me is, “How do I live in this increasing chaos, as a relational person that beholds a new heaven and new earth and lives toward the reality of that kingdom even now?” I don’t always know.

Part of it may have to with willingly denying myself some of the all-you-can-consume smorgasbord of data streaming at me from all directions. So I canceled my satellite television. What’s next? I don’t know, but I think it has something to with embracing the cross, exposing my weaknesses, and seeking to live in the reality of kingdom rooted in the relational love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very nice Doug, as always...

*ninja vanish*

(Justin Patterson)

Pastor Buzz said...

Can I ever identify with the overload of information! We in the media do a poor job as "gatekeepers"; in fact, we are condititioned to NOT be gatekeepers.
My colleagues look at me in astonishment when I say something like, "When God moves me out of the newspaper business, I will likely engage in minimal news consumption -- merely enough to engage in ministry."
Your actions with the satellite TV prove that we are our own gatekeepers. No one is going to protect me from the Dark Side of media. It's up to me to make the choices.
No one is going to limit my consumption. It's up to me to make the choices.
Honestly, this is closer to home for me than you can imagine.
Grace and peace

Kitten (Cheri) said...

Nice reading Doug. There is a lot of information out there and often times it seems that people are throwing out information without substantiating it to hold any truth - just to have their voice be heard amidst all of the shouting.

As the info. keeps coming more rapidly and the gatekeepers’ credibility is questioned more and more, I find it difficult to trust anyone else’s opinion – even if they seem to be more informed. One really has to take the time to become knowledgeable about something in order to make their own decisions. And, we know what they say about opinions…

Good to you for ditching the dish - even with digital cable I usually find myself on National Geographic or one of the Discovery channels whenever I feel the need to tune in, or to the 50's music channel – we probably actually watch the same 5-6 channels consistently out of hundreds of choices.

I romanticize about what it would be like to live in a simpler time, maybe a time when songs were carried by a person’s real voice instead of digital enhancements to hide the lack of talent. :)

Milton Stanley said...

Glad to hear you've cancelled your satellite teevee subscription. My family, by the way, has been without TV (with the exception of an occasional DVD) for about ten years, and I think we're much richer for it. Excellent post, and good questions. The simple answer is that the church should be the gatekeeper. The sad fact is that the church is bombarded, too. I think you're on the right track in reading Christian voices from other places and other times--they help us develop a better perspective on the chaos in which we're living right now.