David Pell in a post at NPR worries that information overload leads many to miss broader issues. His point of departure is a recent Time magazine cover image of a young Afghan woman mutilated by the Taliban. After being put off by the editorial decision to use such a grim photo, he pinged some colleagues to see what they though of it and was appalled to learn that no one else had seen it. His remarks:
This is in part a statement on the significance (or lack thereof) of magazine covers in today’s media.
I could imagine folks missing even an image this arresting in the past. But who would’ve thought we could collectively avert our eyes in an age when random videos can get millions of views and we all know about a Jet Blue flight attendant’s creative slide to retirement within a few hours of it happening.
But that these folks — all of them heavily plugged-in — missed this portrait of Aisha is also a statement on how we can collectively repress data that we don’t want to think about. Even though we are immersed in shared words and images, it’s still pretty easy to miss the big picture.
I’m not convinced the lack of public attention is a function of blinkered viewing habits. Yes, we no longer live in a world of only three networks and only two newsweeklies that counted. In the 1960s, whatever was on the cover of Time or Newsweek would not not be noticed.
But the photo is peculiar. Aisha is clearly badly mutilated, yet the effort to dignify her by shooting her to make her look as pretty as possible perversely undermines the intent of putting her on the cover. The photo somehow has robbed her of the horror of what was done to her.
Contrast her image with this iconic photo from the Vietnam War. The village has just been attacked with napalm, and the naked girl in the center, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, suffered severe burns to her back:
Perhaps we are all too jaded now, and have seen too many realistic-looking torture scenes in movies, but that Pulitzer Prize winning photo was part of the process of bringing the war into America’s living rooms and cementing opinion against it (but let us not forget that the combination of a draft and a conflict that increasingly looked unwinnable was part of the equation too).
I’m not sure I agree with the second part of his argument either:
Google’s Eric Schmidt recently stated that every two days we create as much information as we did from the beginning of civilization through 2003. Perhaps the sheer bulk of data makes it easier to suppress that information which we find overly unpleasant. Who’s got time for a victim in Afghanistan or end-of-life issues with all these Tweets coming in?
Between reality TV, 24-hour news, and the constant hammering of the stream, I am less likely to tackle seriously uncomfortable topics. I can bury myself in a mountain of incoming information. And if my stream is any indication, I’m not alone. For me, repression used to be a one man show. Now I am part of a broader movement — mass avoidance through social media.
Yves here. Ahem, how much of this increase of “information” is merely “information” by virtue of it taking up bandwidth? 60-70% of human conversation is gossip, which often means the same bit of information is traded among various people. Trading it five or fifty times means it takes up that much more space in a bitstream, but does that make it “more” information? Put it another way: when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it was conveyed by TV (the three major networks), radio, and newspapers, many fewer outlets, hence fewer individual messages were conveyed. The way people discussed it in face to face (as they did, the country virtually came to a halt) doesn’t fit the Schmidt/Pell definition of information. When Michael Jackson died, this perverse notion of “messaging = information” means his death, by virtue of the vast Internet/SMS chatter about it, would count as vastly more “information.” Message transmission is increasingly mistake for information content. As a society, we are clearly generating more meta information, more chatter about underlying events (witness this blog!), but how much of that is really just noise?