Truths of the Information Age

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 19, 2012
Previous Version: August 25, 2000

Because information today is a more complicated experience than it used to be, the way we think about it must reflect greater sophistication in understanding its forms, purposes, effects, and even its reasons for existence. This article contains a number of observations about the information environment around us, with the intent that by understanding the way information works you will be better able to locate the truth hidden within the data smog.

1. Media space must eat.

The information industry is built on a certain quantity of information flow. The daily newspaper has dozens of pages which must be filled each day--both to please the expectant subscriber and to fill in the area around the advertisements. The TV news must fill its allotted time each day. The book publishers have budgeted costs and printing schedules for a certain number of books next year. But what if there is no important news tomorrow, no really good book manuscripts submitted? The space must still be filled--with whatever is available. With the explosion of the Internet and increasing competition with ever more magazines, the media content appetite continues to grow rapidly. "Give me content," cries the media space.

During periods of too much information, media must omit, select, or condense. In a scarcity, media must spread out, repeat, or include the unimportant information. News can be invented readily. For example, a reporter can travel to the grocery store, buy a handful of products, and create a story, "Do you know how much fat [or sodium or sugar] is in the food you eat every day?" The reporter then will read the labels for the story, perhaps adding a comment about federal guidelines being exceeded.

Information is shaped to fit the medium and the available or required size. A written piece of a certain length will be trimmed by the editor of a magazine, whereas a book publisher will ask that it be hammered out into a fuller length. Many a popular article has been turned into a book, not because there was that much more to say, but because that was the medium for sales and profit. Next time you read a book and think, "That would have made a great article," maybe it did.

All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. --Ecclesiastes 1:8

2. Information must compete.

There is a need for information to stand out and be recognized in the increasing clutter, the data smog, that surrounds us. The flood of information such as advertising creates distortions in the presentation of information. Here are some ways competition is mounted in the information arena:

As a result of these competitive pressures, we have demonstrated what might be called Gresham's Law of information: Bad information drives out good. Journalism stoops to rumor and tabloid values to compete with Internet sources.

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts. --Proverbs 18:8

3. The early word gets the perm.

The first media outlet to cover an issue often defines its terms, context, and attitudes surrounding it. The first statement often becomes the permanent concept. How the issue will be viewed, what the alternatives are, etc. Are those people who are attacking some other people to be called freedom fighters, rebels, or terrorists, revolutionaries?

Journalists love repeating familiar epithets, so if one person is dubbed early on by a memorable phrase, it will often stick. "Tricky Dick," "The Teflon president," and "Slick Willie," for example.

The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. --Proverbs 18:17

4. The frame makes the painting.

Those who frame the terms of discourse influence the choices and the outcomes. If an issue is framed as a battle between tolerance and bigotry, then whatever side is the tolerant one will be preferred. The fallacy of false dilemma is often used, where one side is presented as highly undesirable and the other as attractive. We are then asked to choose. "This is a conflict between justice and oppression." Sometimes only certain alternatives will be permitted. "Should we remodel, rebuild, or just fix as needed?" What about tear down or move? Political considerations often determine which alternatives will be silently excluded from the discussion.

Photographs do not speak for themselves. A photograph is instant in time, with zero context. What happened before and what happened after? What was really going on in the area not included in the photograph? Suppose you see a truckload of people looking through a grate. Are they prisoners? refugees? or ordinary people from a rural village going to vote? Often pictures are not worth a thousand words, the pictures are ambiguous until explained by words.

5. Selection is a viewpoint.

Selecting certain stories to report on while not selecting others, or selecting certain details of a story while omitting others reflects not just the interests but the agenda of the media outlet. Whatever is ignored is seen as not important and in effect non existent. You cannot consider an argument you never hear, nor can you think about an event you have never heard of. For media outlets to say they report on "What is important," helps little, because importance is a selective judgment. If you want to receive a more balanced view of reality, choose multiple sources for your information.

6. Newer is equated with truer.

There is an obsession with the new and different. Novelty, the unusual, will get our attention. We are a "been there, done that" society and always want something new. That's why we watch the "news," and why we fall for the "new, improved" claims on products and buy the "new" model cars which are often only marginally different from last year's models. The rapid changes in technology, where old "truth" is constantly supplanted by new "truth" makes us think the same supplantation must be true of values, virtues, philosophical ideas and the like. We have lost the sense that any fact or value can endure. The irony is that every age looks back on the previous one with scorn and laughs at how na´ve, foolish, and egotistical the best thinkers of that age were. Why can we not see a few years ahead to those who will have the same attitude toward us, and gain a little humility?

But to return to novelty. There is a paradox of novelty. Too much real novelty is disorienting; too much novelty threatens to bring us to a confused standstill. So there is a need to present the appearance of novelty: formulaic or predictable novelty, to create a feeling both of newness and yet a comfort in a recognizable and predictable universe. Thus, the tabloids keep running stories about Elvis, Princess Diana, Oprah, the prophecies of Nostradamus, what the UFO aliens are up to, etc.

All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. --Acts 17:21

7. The media sell what the culture buys.

Because information is a commodity item, it must cater to the tastes of its consumers. In other words, information is shaped by cultural priorities. The priorities of contemporary America include selfishness and entertainment. Therefore, information should be about me and be fun. The "entertainment economy" affects every kind of information, from news to advertising, to sermons, to college textbooks. American culture is also increasingly visual. Therefore, information should be visual or at least contain lots of color pictures. Publishers may hold their noses when they publish some books, but if those books sell, those books are published. Self help books take up many feet of shelf space in the average bookstore because those books move through the cash register and out the door.

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. --2 Timothy 4:3-4

8. You are what you eat and so is your brain.

We think by using the information given to us by others. When you make generalizations, you must do so based on the information you have received from the information inputs you make use of. If the information is biased, distorted, limited, selected, or even false, then both our thoughts and conclusions will be bad. If one side's viewpoint is presented as inhumane, foolish, old fashioned, unworkable, or unjust, then we will naturally think the other side is better. If certain ideas are never presented to us, we cannot draw adequate conclusions. Compare evolutionists resistance to opposition. We all want to be on the side of the educated professionals and not on the side of the ignorant bigots.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! --Matthew 6:22-23

This article is continued in Part 2.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com