Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Idolatry of Information Overload

The news reporting phenomenon known to members of the media and citizen journalists alike, by way of a phrase that is neither particularly descriptive, nor especially revealing, has been recently dubbed "New Media". While the internet and the blogosphere has shaped New Media's formation and taken an important role in driving its agenda, the movement is really nothing more than an updated version of a successful series. The inevitable generational senility known as institutional memory, or perhaps even the willful ignorance of many has ensured that few have made the connection between the devices of internet age and the similar tactics of prior age---namely that of the investigative journalist. Both of these quantum leaps had similar motives and were inspired by similar circumstances. When the next big thing becomes the status quo, purists and pioneers alike seek to find something better and, upon its arrival, leap aboard in a desire to become its champion.

In the same way that the creative nonfiction/investigative journalism hybrid known as New Journalism dominated the 1960's and 1970's, so too is New Media the newest, most immediate method to disseminate pertinent information. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and the steady unraveling of the Watergate scandal faithfully reported by Woodward and Bernstein owed much to New Journalism and its established codicils. New Media has revolutionized the industry (if not completely shaken it up) and in so doing established a more egalitarian approach towards data collection and dispersal. The movement has its adherents and its detractors, but in seeking to best understand and define New Media, it might be instructive to first understand New Journalism. According to New Journalist Tom Wolfe, the discipline in its heyday was comprised of several interrelated elements, among which were

  • Telling the story using scenes rather than historical narrative as much as possible
  • Dialogue in full (Conversational speech rather than quotations and statements)
  • Point-of-view (present every scene through the eyes of a particular character)
  • Recording everyday details such as behavior, possessions, friends and family (which indicate the "status life" of the character)

    Despite these elements, New Journalism is not fiction. It maintains elements of reporting including strict adherence to factual accuracy and the writer being the primary source. To get "inside the head" of a character, the journalist asks the subject what they were thinking or how they felt.

  • An older school of journalism would have presented the facts in such as way as to mimic a scientist forming a theory. Objectivity at the expense of personal opinion or emotional leaning was the established precedent of the time. However, the limitations of this approach were also noteworthy, namely that journalistic objectivity was a stated goal quite often difficult to define with an precision, and a destination even more difficult to realize. Furthermore, the story was produced by adhering to strictly objective standards, which frequently came across as sterile and dispassionate, which often eliminated the human element altogether. Any writer, regardless of topic, intent, or subject must find that elusive balance between factual presentation and emotional warmth, which when achieved separates good writing from adequate but unspectacular prosy. Some scholars have even argued that objectivity justifies indefensible points of view like, for example, racism in its efforts to evenhandedly present every side of a conflict. In our times, this fallacy of thought normalizes the arguments of not just the rational voices opposing President Obama's agenda, not just the cacophony of the crazies, but also the Republican politicians who attempt to use unfocused, irrational anger for their own political expediency.

    Some in the media have been expressing their strong displeasure that an off-the-record portion of an interview with President Obama was Tweeted for the world to see. While this impulsive act does violate journalistic ethics at the most basic level imaginable, it seems to have also spoken to existent fears among the conventional media that such behavior will only increase in frequency henceforth. Perhaps so. The internet has an undeniable immediacy to it that print media cannot match and editors cannot red pencil. However, also feeding these anxieties is the realization that the internet cannot be controlled or regulated in the way that media of an older age could. Instead of perpetuating a mythology of some romanticized epoch approaching demise, it needs to be stated that the media's power has frequently been curtailed by The Powers That Be.

    Franklin Roosevelt held an paternalistic iron fist over the press and even directly dictated to reporters precisely and unequivocally what he did and did not want printed in the dailies. Those who displeased the President during press conferences would find themselves at the mercy of his frequently caustic tongue. I can't imagine such behavior would be tolerated today in any corner or by any organization. A generation or so later, New Journalism ushered in a new degree of media power and influence. New Journalism brought down a President, after all, and when it did, politicians were forced to recognize that the roles had very nearly reversed. Once upon a time the media was careful to appear deferential to politicians. From Watergate forward, politicians have been careful to appear deferential to the media. Before, politicians could make or break journalists. Now, the media can make or break politicians. This power shift was not achieved overnight, nor without substantial effort, which is why the mainstream voices are understandably threatened by the arrival of competing interests. Above all, what the media does not wish to concede openly is that it owes its current gigantic stature in the American psyche by the skillful application of similar tactics now employed by bloggers.

    Stanley Fish's New York Times recent blog post confronts another piece of a huge puzzle. This critique raises some very pertinent and very interesting points. Particularly fascinating is the suggestion that our own exhaustive pursuit of knowledge might very well prove to be our undoing. I myself am fearful of the idolatry in which people believe that wisdom alone might be sufficient to solve every problem. And though I am a person of faith, I do not believe that irresponsible reliance upon God will solve every issue. However, what does trouble me at times is that we seem to believe that knowledge alone might be our sole salvation. Intelligence and learning is capable of solving many matters but taken to an extreme it obscures the common humanity that links us together. The pursuit of information without the guidance of morality can easily become a cancerous, constant pursuit of triviality and banality.

    Jonathan Robinson, writing in this century [states]: “What we are talking about is the desire to satisfy our curiosity on any and every conceivable subject that takes our fancy”.

    Give this indictment of men in love with their own capacities a positive twist and it becomes a description of the scientific project, which includes among its many achievements space travel, a split atom, cloning and the information revolution. It is a project that celebrates the expansion of knowledge’s boundaries as an undoubted good, and it is a project that Chairman Leach salutes when he proudly lists the joint efforts by the University of Virginia and the N.E.H. to digitize just about everything. “The computer revolution,” he announces, “holds out the prospect that the digital library could be become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity.”

    That’s exactly what Paul Griffiths, professor of divinity at Duke University, is afraid of. Where Leach welcomes the enlargement of curiosity’s empire, Griffiths, who is writing a book on the vice of curiosity, sees it as a sign of moral and spiritual danger: “Late modern societies that are fundamentally shaped by the overwhelming presence of electronic media and the obscene inundation of every aspect of human life by pictures and sounds have turned the vice of curiosity into a prescribed way of life”. The prescriptions come in the form of familiar injunctions: follow the inquiry as far as it goes, leave no stone unturned, there is always more to know, the more information the better. “In a world where curiosity rules,” Griffiths declares, “unmasking curiosity as a destructive and offensive device . . . amounts to nothing less than a . . . radical critique of superficiality and constant distraction.”

    Many in the professional media have either implied or stated directly that they ought to be the only gatekeepers trusted with the task of regulating information exchange. Had they, in times past, proven themselves worthy of such a responsibility and uniformly consistent in its application, I would be more inclined to concede them the point. Radical superficiality and constant distraction are as close a definition of much of the programming on cable news as I could possibly hope to come up with on my own. To be fair, this degree of mind-numbing banality is not all that gets aired, but it nonetheless transpires often enough to raise very legitimate concerns. In contrast, some in the mainstream media have made a case that "the blogs" fit this exact same description. It needs to be noted again that all blogs are neither identical in purpose, nor in content. While many of them do revolve around mindless self-gratification, one needn't forget the vast number of substantive, pertinent, and noteworthy sites that have inspired me and frequently enriched my own posts.

    Perhaps it was inevitable that the private would become more public. Perhaps it was inevitable that old ways would give way to new ones. Perhaps each generation must confront these same issues and the same unresolved riddles which presented themselves in different, but related forms to those which came before them. Human behavior constantly vacillates between the logical head and the passionate heart. A strong case can be made for both, but what few would disagree with is that arriving at some happy medium betwix't the two of them is the only real public option we have.

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