Too much in­for­ma­tion, not enough dis­cern­ment

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

Be­fore the in­ven­tion of mov­able type in the 15th cen­tury, the me­dia of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion was lim­ited to ar­chi­tec­ture, paint­ings, sculp­ture, images on coins and songs sung by bal­ladeers. Chris­tians learned about the dan­gers of Hell from the stained-glass sto­ries in the cathe­drals. The peo­ple might have had an idea of what their king looked like by his minted (usu­ally heroic) im­age on coins. But they might not have known much about their king or what he was do­ing that might change or even end their lives sud­denly.

Af­ter the print­ing press, the sliver of hu­man­ity that was lit­er­ate (mostly cler­ics, some of the more mo­ti­vated aris­toc­racy and a few mer­chants) en­gaged in con­ti­nen­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion of key new ideas. Slowly over cen­turies, lit­er­acy spread down­ward and pol­i­tics and news be­gan to be in­formed by books, news­pa­pers and pam­phlets. Prior to the in­ven­tion of the tele­graph in the 1840s, what­ever news there was could move no faster than the trot of a horse — al­though semaphore, yo­del­ing, smoke-sig­nals and car­rier pi­geons could move some vi­tal in­for­ma­tion slightly faster over short dis­tances.

In fast suc­ces­sion mass and long-dis­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tion was ad­vanced by the gen­eral avail­abil­ity of tele­phones (1870s), lino­type­fast news­pa­pers (1880s), ra­dios (1920s), tele­vi­sions (1950s), com­put­ers (1970s), the In­ter­net (1990s) and cel­lu­lar text, au­dio and now video de­vices (2000s).

Over those cen­turies we have gone from ig­no­rance of the events of the world due to the ab­sence of in­for­ma­tion to to­day’s con­di­tion of con­fu­sion and ig­no­rance due to an un­end­ing glut of in­for­ma­tion. We are liv­ing out the truth of Sher­lock Holmes’ in­sight that to hide some­thing, sur­round it in plain sight with many sim­i­lar items. In his fic­tional case, a crim­i­nal hid an in­crim­i­nat­ing bro­ken piece of porce­lain in a room filled with bro­ken porce­lain. Which was the piece that mat­tered? To­day, as snip­pets of news flash past our con­scious­ness at a rate and vol­ume greater than our ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb, we don’t know what to know and what to ig­nore. And of the in­for­ma­tion we de­cide to no­tice and ab­sorb, there are so many ver­sions of it that we don’t know what is true and what is false or dis­torted.

For ex­am­ple, on Dec. 18 The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that war was likely to break out be­tween Ethiopia and So­ma­lia on Dec. 19. On Dec. 19 the BBC re­ported that the threat of war be­tween So­ma­lia and Ethiopia was re­ced­ing as both sides in­di­cated a de­sire to ne­go­ti­ate.

In Septem­ber Pak­istan en­tered into an agree­ment with North Waziris­tan (part of Pak­istan) which a few com­men­ta­tors such as I char­ac­ter­ized as our ally Pak­istan ne­go­ti­at­ing a sep­a­rate peace with (and ef­fec­tively a sur­ren­der to) our joint en­e­mies, the Tal­iban and al Qaeda. Other news or­ga­ni­za­tions re­ported the event, but did not char­ac­ter­ize it as I did. Was this event a cen­tral and dan­ger­ous de­vel­op­ment in our war in Afghanistan (the ev­i­dence grows to sup­port my anal­y­sis), or was it merely an in­ter­nal ad­min­is­tra­tive Pak­istani mat­ter of lit­tle con­se­quence?

Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has an­nounced that on the evening of Jan. 4 it will cost you $15,000 to cel­e­brate her as­cen­sion to the Speaker’s chair with her. She has also an­nounced that on the morn­ing of Jan. 5, you can meet her in “The Peo­ple’s House” for free. De­pend­ing on which of those items passes into the con­scious­ness of peo­ple next month, they might think she is ei­ther a Demo­crat or a plu­to­crat. Or they may be so con­fused by the con­flict­ing images of the same per­son that comes at them from one nanosec­ond to the other that they give up on try­ing to un­der­stand the world and men­tally re­treat into their own private lives. Of course, it is not just Mrs. Pelosi’s con­flict­ing images, but the images of ev­ery po­lit­i­cal fact and event that are com­ing at peo­ple.

How dif­fer­ent, func­tion­ally, is the man or wo­man of 2006 who men­tally checks out from the chaos of the world’s events and news, to that Euro­pean vil­lager of 1400 who isn’t sure who his king is, what he looks like or what he is do­ing? Well one dif­fer­ence is that to­day, the peo­ple — whether ig­no­rant or in­formed, whether wise or fool­ish — can strongly in­flu­ence the state ac­tions of their coun­try. In the 14th cen­tury, kings and princes were free to act un­hin­dered by a pub­lic opin­ion that didn’t ex­ist — al­though the con­tin­gency of ri­ots, re­bel­lions and rev­o­lu­tions usu­ally hov­ered at the back of kingly minds.

Of course the sovereignty of the peo­ple has — and I hope will con­tinue to be — the bene­fac­tor of their hap­pi­ness and dig­nity. But in the tech­no­log­i­cally driven grow­ing chaos of pub­lic in­for­ma­tion over­load and dis­tor­tion, the leader must by force of mind, word, im­age and per­son­al­ity de­fine for the pub­lic some sem­blance of ob­jec­tive re­al­ity. As never be­fore, the leader who fails in that mis­sion will fail in his of­fice.

And rule by the peo­ple it­self is threat­ened if the peo­ple are un­able to gain a plau­si­ble grip on re­al­ity. The threat to democ­racy in the fu­ture will be less from above than from our mind-numbed selves.

Tony Blank­ley is ed­i­tor in chief of The Times. He can be reached via e-mail at tblank­ley@wash­ing­ton­

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