Media Circus - Information, please!

Our addiction to information is ruining our ability to think.

Published June 27, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

You want information? I've got information. True, I don't exactly know what to do with it, I can't find it when I need it and I don't physically have room for it in my apartment. But I've got it, and unless something drastic happens to me or to the world, I'm going to keep on accumulating more of it. A rough inventory: I have, oh, perhaps 4,000 news articles stashed away on various disks and my hard drive, some 50 megabytes of sheer information -- very little of which I've actually bothered to do more than skim. I have several thousand books, all sorts, stacked two-deep on shelves and stuffed into cupboards and boxes. I have more magazine subscriptions than I can afford, and more old magazines and newspapers and clippings and printouts than I can even imagine how to count. My TV is on 10 or 12 hours a day, sometimes with the radio on as well -- and as far as I can tell, in my info-addled state, it's sending vast chunks of what the technically minded call data my way. (Admittedly, some of this data involves shouting matches between miniskirted grandmas and their mortified grandchildren on the Jerry Springer show, but it's still data of a sort.)

My name is David, and I'm an infoholic.

I'm not, of course, the only one with this problem. According to a recent congressional report, the Central Intelligence Agency faces a case of information overload at least as severe as mine. The Agency spends billions of dollars on expensive data-gathering missions -- investing heavily in spy satellites and high-tech listening devices and so on. It just can't figure out what to do with the data it gathers, much of which, apparently, sits unwanted and unloved on hard drives or in storage boxes like the Charlie-in-the-Box on the Island of Misfit Toys. Of course, no one really wants to stop gathering all this stuff; the report suggests merely that we spend more money trying to process it all.

A decade ago, as Barbara Ehrenreich once noted, Americans began to look on busyness as "an important insignia of upper-middle-class status." To be successful is to be busy; ergo, to look busy is to look successful. You can't just eat lunch; you have to do lunch, and preferably do a deal while you're at it. You can't just yell at other drivers or sing along with the radio while commuting home in your car; you have to be cold-calling potential clients on the cell phone.

Or so I've heard. I never really got into the "cult of conspicuous busyness," as Ehrenreich called it. For one thing, it seemed to involve too many fervid workouts at the gym. Luckily for me the busy cult is giving way to a new religion, one that almost requires you to spend a good deal of time lying prone on the couch reading a newspaper, with the TV on CNN and PointCast downloading stock quotes to your PC: the cult of info overload.

Sure, nearly everyone complains about the flood of information they're forced to wade through every single day, just as they used to complain about their busy schedules. But there is more than a hint of pride in this sort of complaining. In our media-saturated culture, there's a race on to see who can become the most media-saturated of all.

Hence, perhaps, the media fascination with the king of information overload -- and a significant contributor to it in his own right -- the one-man media empire known as Matt Drudge. Drudge, as most media-saturated info cultists already know all too well, is the 30-year-old gossip hound behind the Drudge Report, a collection of juicy tidbits about politics and Hollywood that's e-mailed to some 60,000 subscribers "when circumstances warrant," which can sometimes mean several times in a day. Drudge has become a deity of sorts in the burgeoning info cult.

Most of those who've written about Drudge seem less interested in his work -- or in his various "scoops" -- than in his working environment. Drudge seems to live and work in the midst of a continual media circus, and a three-ring one at that. The point-and-click investigative reporter "usually works at home in his boxer shorts," Newsday reports, with "three television sets going at once" while he "monitors the electronic sites of 20 major newspapers." In a breathless report from Drudge's home office, Josh Quittner of the Netly News describes in more detail what you'll find in the now-legendary Drudge "geekatorium": "one TV showing CNN, another MSNBC, a third tuned to a direct-broadcast satellite. Rush Limbaugh, a fan and spiritual brother, blares out of one of the radios. Drudge's police scanner is crackling pure L.A. bad will. And of course, there are computers -- three of them. ... In the past 24 hours, 1,796 E-mail messages have poured into his In box."

And here I am, bragging about my 4,000 news articles. Clearly, I am not worthy.

But questions of personal worthiness aside, is all this information really worth the trouble it takes to collect it? Many experts, predictably enough, say no. According to some psychologists, our total immersion in the data flow can bring on a nefarious malady called Information Fatigue Syndrome. A study conducted by Reuters last fall argued that info glut can make you sick. The study, based on surveys of 1,300 corporate managers in the United States, Britain, Hong Kong and Singapore, reported that two-thirds of those surveyed felt that information overload increased work stress and damaged personal relationships on the job and off; a third said the info surplus made them ill. "We're seeing a loss of motivation, loss of morale," psychologist David Lewis, who analyzed the survey, told CNN. "We're seeing greater irritability." Lewis suggests all this information can be quite literally too much to digest: "On the physical level, you might find people having digestive problems. They may, if the stress is chronic, have problems with their heart -- hypertension, high blood pressure."

The real problem, of course, is not the information itself; it's that, like the spooks at the CIA, no one seems to want to take much time to actually process what they collect. According to a study by the Newseum, in conjunction with the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and the Media Studies Center, Americans tend to "consume news in vast amounts," with a third reading, watching or otherwise absorbing news for at least an hour; a fifth of those surveyed reported that they spent two hours or more a day gathering news. And yet very few can manage to transform the vast assortment of data points rattling about in their skulls into anything resembling a coherent picture of the world.

The cult of information is the spiritual heir to another dubious religion: the cult of the fact. Americans have great faith in the power of The Truth -- and even more faith in their ability to find it. But too many think The Truth is something one can arrive at through the simple accumulation of facts. You can't, though, just as you can't create a house by piling bricks and lumber and pipes and electrical wiring in a heap on an empty lot. You've got to actually construct the thing. And before you build, you've got to clear away the clutter. Maybe the truth is out there. But -- as I have to forcefully remind myself from time to time -- you're not going to find it with three TVs running, a fax machine spitting out paper, Eudora faithfully sorting e-mail from a dozen mailing lists and a police scanner squawking about some random emergency halfway across town. You've got to turn down the volume. You need to be able to hear yourself think.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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