Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Coping with info deluge

The always on info world

The always on info world

ND Batra
Fron The Statesman

There was a time when production, distribution and processing of information, news and entertainment, existed in a state of balance. We consumed and assimilated what was produced. And then there was time for silence, for gossip, and for imagination. But that was before computers, microwave and satellite transmission created a deluge that seems to sweep away everything else from our lives. Some of us, especially of the older generation, raised on the logic of linear thinking and writing, can’t handle what we see as an information flood.

Others, especially of the digital generation, raised on computer games, cell phones, instant messaging, kids born to multitasking, revel on this new culture of incessant message swapping. I have not heard net-generation kids complaining that there is too much information swirling around them.

David Schenk bemoans in his book Data Smog that – thanks to a ceaseless development of computer technology – information and data production has become so abundant that it clutters our minds as “a pollutant.” We produce too much information for our own good, and so fast that our minds can’t assimilate it, he said. Of course, what is a pollutant could become raw material for something new in the future, only if know what to do with it. In other words, we don’t have enough information on how to turn pollutants into useful products. Perhaps we need even better technology to manage information.

Making a sweeping statement, Schenk says that the phenomenon of accelerated information production and data collection is of recent origin, only half a century old. “For nearly 1,00,000 years leading up to this century, information technology has been an unambiguous virtue as a means of sustaining and developing culture… Then, around the time of the first atom bomb, something strange happened. We began to produce information much faster than we could process it.”

He does not mean that the atom bomb triggered an unstoppable information avalanche, though there’s no gainsaying the fact that the dropping of such bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a kind of information explosion that could not have been handled by traditional means of information processing, especially in a manner that would have created knowledge and understanding of what man had done to man.

Like Luddites of the 19th century, who out of fear of loss of jobs and their traditional lifestyles, destroyed machinery rather than adopting and accepting it, Schenk too seems to be giving up instead of trusting that human mind has not come to the end of its development and evolution. “We have quite suddenly mutated into a radical different culture, a civilisation that trades in and survives on stylised communication… The blank spaces and silent moments in life are fast disappearing. Mostly because we have asked for it, media are everywhere. Television, telephones, radios, message beepers and an assortment of other modern communication and navigational aids are now as ubiquitous as roads and tennis shoes – anywhere humans can go, all forms of media now follow: onto trains, planes, automobiles, into hotel bathrooms, along jogging paths and mountain trails, on bikes and boats...”

True, we are living in a world of multimedia ecology, and for some of us information generated by ubiquitous computing and the Internet is too much. Sometime ago, the television sitcom Hope and Faith introduced a double episode about wife swapping, which in spite of its suggestive open marriage indecency wasn’t as naughty as it might sound. In fact “Wife Swap” was a separate reality show, where two housewives in culturally different states (red and blue, for example) exchange households along with children, but without sharing beds.

In a parody of the reality show, in the Hope and Faith episode of wife swap, Hope leaves her home in Columbus, Ohio, and moves to live with a family in Manhattan, New York, where she finds that the high-tech New York family members have all the cyber-age gadgets but they seldom talk with each other as a family. The worst culprit is the work-alcoholic father, Aaron, who in a delightful mockery of “always on, always available,” is always talking to someone on his hand-free cell phone. When he looks at his “swapped wife” Hope at the dining table, she thinks he is talking with her, but of course, no, he is talking past her, with someone else on the other side, a client. The Manhattan man symbolised the multitasking man of today, always in communication, always networking, always connected, except when it comes to touching someone emotionally and keeping relations on a steady keel.

The Manhattan wife-swapping episode ended with the cell-phone addicted Aaron deciding to give up his always-on wireless communication gear, sell his multimillion-dollar apartment and return to his family’s bosom and turn to simpler things of yesteryears. But running away from information age is no solution. We have to consider the evolutionary possibility that confronted with an ever increasing deluge of information, the human mind might evolve and adapt and learn to improve the signal-to-noise ratio; new technology might help us to see patterns in what is called noise and clutter.

History of human evolution has been a struggle to transform nothingness to information, from empty cave walls to primitive carvings and murals, from rags and papyrus to manuscript writing, from zero-and-one sheep counting to decimal system to binary bits and bytes. Tools that help us to create information would also help us to find patterns of meanings in the flood of information that we generate.

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