The Solution to Information Overload Can’t Be More Information

Why shutting down Twitter accounts or limiting Facebook groups won’t solve our problem

Photo: ETA+/Unsplash

In February, after the United States Senate voted to acquit President Donald Trump of impeachment charges, Sean Illing at Vox described why nobody seemed to care. “Despite all the incontrovertible facts at the center of this story,” Illing wrote, “it was always inevitable that this process would change very few minds.”

At the heart of this obvious problem, Illing argued, was “a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information” and is frequently and deliberately manipulated to the point where it’s impossible to tell what’s accurate and what’s fabricated. Illing pointed to Steve Bannon, a purveyor of information chaos, to describe what happens: To counteract the narrative of reality, Bannon reportedly said in 2018, is to “flood the zone with shit.” Overwhelming information exhausts people, Illing noted. This weariness leads people to retreat to comfortable ideological sides, he continued, or simply “abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.”

That flood wouldn’t be possible without social platforms. This has meant that reaction to the shit-flood tactic has been largely to demand that social platforms stop it. Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, has famously been hauled in front of lawmakers more than once to answer for the garbage that spreads mostly unencumbered on the social platform he created. So has Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Occasionally, the platforms take action. In late August, for instance, Twitter shut down viral pro-Trump accounts purporting to be lifelong Black Democrat voters who’d flipped to the Republican side because of the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier in the month, Facebook removed or restricted hundreds of QAnon conspiracy-affiliated groups across its platforms.

But eliminating accounts or restricting groups doesn’t get to the real problem, which is not about content but about the information sphere writ large that we’ve constructed — and what that means for our understanding of the world. Simply put, we have an information sequencing problem, in that any rational sequence of information has been destroyed. And this means everything turns to shit.

Back in 1972, media theorist Marshall McLuhan diagnosed the problem this way: In the 19th century, we lived in a visual space, which he described as “continuous, uniform, connected, and static.” It is a space that’s linear and logical: One thing follows from another. For a long time, we considered this space to be “normal, natural, rational,” McLuhan said. But that all ended with the advent of information traveling at electric speed — when we created an environment of “simultaneous and instantaneous information.” Our current experience, McLuhan said, is now not visual, but “acoustic,” which is “discontinuous, disconnected, non-uniform, and dynamic.”

In this world, “electric information arrives from all quarters of the globe,” and old informational structures have collapsed, along with any established point of view or perspective (or the ability to create one). Information in an acoustic environment is no longer rational or linear. Our acoustic world, McLuhan said, is one in which “there are no familiar boundaries… no sequence. There is no logic.”

We’ve created a world that is not merely run on information, but where there is nothing but information.

The simultaneous-instantaneous information environment, such as it was when McLuhan described it, has been exacerbated in the half century that’s passed since his speech. Our immersion in the acoustic information sphere has deepened — not just in terms of the media we consume, but in the way our lives have been transformed into data.

To varying degrees, nearly everything we do has become information. The social platforms through which we understand our society are the most obvious example (we’ll get back to those in a moment), but many of our interactions with the world, including with our friends and family, are purely informational — texts, video chats, and so on. We have even turned our bodies into informational streams, monitoring our movements and heartbeats, generating a readout of our sleep patterns. We’ve created a world that is not merely run on information, but where there is nothing but information. This advanced acoustic existence positions us in a contextual tautology: When everything is information, information is everything. What this boils down to most of the time is that we tend to think the solution to every problem — even those created by too much information — is more information.

Take democracy, for example, the very thing Steve Bannon appears to have sought to undermine. Arguably, it’s vital that citizens understand their government and their role in shaping public policy. In recent years, the way we’ve collectively decided to facilitate that knowledge is to demand transparency. Most of the time, this has meant governments dump data via “open government” initiatives, including accessible public databases like those that reveal salaries and program spending. So, we now know a lot more about what the government does than we might have a few decades ago, but I’m sure you’ll have noticed that the government is no better understood by the broad population. Why?

Let’s assume we’ve demanded this transparency not for increased general understanding of government, but for simple accountability’s sake (this is usually the reason). With more information, the thinking seems to go, we can hold public figures to account in the same way we might hold ourselves more accountable to a fitness regimen after monitoring our activity data for the day and realizing we were less active than we had assumed. It’s a reality check. But within our acoustic informational sphere, how does that work? What happens when a reality check is applied to, say, Donald Trump?

Trump says a lot of stuff that’s misleading, erroneous, or simply false. The solution to this problem might seem to be to hold him accountable with contrasting information. Checking Trump’s claims against other available data is a herculean effort and considered an admirable one by many. But while this exercise is, for the fact-checker, instructional, for everyone else, it’s a bit like creating a negative of a film print — it’s information duplication. At the end of the day, it’s all the same thing.

To this you might argue, “But one thing is fact and the other is not.” But in an acoustic space, there is no way to establish facts as different than anything else. If information comes from everywhere all at once and is non-sequential, then we have rendered facts, which rely on a linear structure, essentially moot, or at least irrelevant.

We tend to think the solution to every problem — even those created by too much information — is more information.

This is most obviously the case on social media, currently the dominant channel through which our society is understood and interpreted (though it is replicated on others like TV). That’s because social media projects the structure of the acoustic sphere in a purist sense, in that it achieves a kind of information totality. While we don’t see a series of zeros and ones every time we open Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms, everything presented on them is nonetheless reflective of the underlying acoustic structure. Logging on to the platform is to experience the world of data, in that it reduces everything to a binary stream.

As much as Mark Zuckerberg would like us to consider his platform as a place to have open and honest discussion — a free speech zone — it is by design, something much different. “The radical difference between the infrastructure overseen by Mark Zuckerberg and George Gallup in the 1930s is that we can all now potentially act as the pollster. Here’s my dog: like or dislike? Donald Trump is a fascist: agree or disagree?” William Davies wrote in August in the London Review of Books. “This is not the idealised classical or liberal public sphere of argument and deliberation, but a society of perpetual referendums.”

This means that in our current world, as McLuhan theorized, answers come before the questions. Or, as Davies wrote, we are “privileging decision first and understanding second.” We could even go further than that: Understanding is actually impossible in a situation where sequence is destroyed and logic is absent. Facts become meaningless. Nobody is accountable. There are no goals. In our world, there is no distinction between good information and bad information, there is only information. In place of understanding, we are left with a deep sense of uncertainty, making A-B choices about the world like a simple algorithm — in a sense becoming information, ourselves.

Does this mean it’s useless to try to combat the likes of Steve Bannon or other intentional shit creators? Yes and no. If the goal is to marginalize hate speech and conspiracy theories, then de-platforming has been shown to be effective. When was the last time anyone heard from Alex Jones, Gavin McInnes, or Paul Joseph Watson? Without mainstream channels to broadcast their message, these individuals have been effectively silenced from the conversation. Equally, it’s possible that shutting down anti-BLM bot networks and curtailing the spread of QAnon groups might mean fewer people get sucked into those specific regions of localized online chaos.

But these actions don’t mean that other information is any more decipherable or logical or sequential. We shouldn’t wonder why eliminating unwanted information does little to improve the information we do want. The underlying structure — our acoustic world — remains the same. It’s all shit, all the way down. The zone is always flooded.


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