It's nearly ten years since a study sponsored by Reuters, Glued to the Screen: An investigation into information addiction worldwide, identified information addiction. The topic keeps cropping up in informal discussions with friends, colleagues, associates. And it's relevant, very relevant to how we see the net evolving.
Discovery, finding out, is an evolutionary necessity for humans; it is so necessary it verges on an addiction, a story that hit the headlines in the summer of this year.
"Dr. Hallowell and John Ratey, an associate professor at Harvard and a psychiatrist with an expertise in attention deficit disorder, are among a growing number of physicians and sociologists who are assessing how technology affects attention span, creativity and focus." They compare information consumption as practiced by the multitasking wired individual with the dopamine release from narcotics. "It takes the same pathway as our drugs of abuse and pleasure."
We also habitually create new cultures, according to evolutionary biologist Professor Mark Pegal. It's what distinguishes us. And it's what is happening now.
Talking with a teacher at a leading technology institute today, I learned that the very process of encouraging young people to take a point of view, to reach beyond the Google search box and form a perspective on life that can be expressed in an artistic way, is the most problematic part of engaging with a part of that age group.
As we create more content, the question is has our compulsive approach to information overtaken our ability to analyse it? It's a question that people are asking without saying very much.
First, the channels of communication that are opening up to us need far more content than we've yet to put in play. Overwhelmed by information, we're compelled to create more. More of those YouTube scratch videos, scratch podcasts, weird takes on our moral disorientation, and of course sport, extreme, and edgy, will be needed. Your Internet Procotol TV needs you.
And more time spent working out how to use technology communally, building our networks and associations, building out creative applications in the way we now see happening from Silicon Vally to Bangalore — what's to stop anyone in the global neighbourhood extend that blogging skill into a new publishing application like travel guides, how-to guides, experiential tracts, spiritual diversions, musings and mentions. It's easy to envisage in five years time a world where all kinds of hybrid publishing products slither onto the screen.
The type of product though doesn't change the nature of the underlying personal dynamics. We need more content to fill more communications pipes and we're becoming more compelled to seek and select different kinds of content. But to what extent are our views of how the future will play out coloured by compulsion?
The cliches that describe change envision a river of information, a world devoid of hierarchy, a flat earth, one where few guardians of veracity are needed because everybody is a guardian. It's a debate that raged over the weekend. The problem with these viewpoints is not just their utopian nature and the tendency to confuse a trend with a logical extreme. It is also that they preclude an imaginative play with future possibilities.
The future of the web and information and content is intellectually stalled by the idea it will play out through the collective vision and perspicacity of a perfectly empowered public. Yet we have suffered a decline in critical thinking and in the transformation of social problematics into artistic concepts. We don't, like John Lennon, Imagine anymore; we extrapolate and we make claims based on universal types. And then we assume that this critically truncated culture is going to perform the miracle of transforming us into the perfect cyber-democracy.
That lack of critical rigour is evident enough in the debate. We make claims about what people will do. People will always recognize a writer who's faking it for money; consumers will become producers; the reader will become the writer. Well, some will, some won't, and some will do differently, some will continue to be gullible, some will trust, some will revolt. We have compulsively assumed the web obsessive is the average. We are out on a limb anticipating a logical conclusion to behaviour.
It might be more interesting to think in real terms what we can achieve in the way of diversity — diversity of form, content, novelty, innovation, but we're seeing the future in much narrower terms. It's easier to say flat earth than it is to conjure up images of diverse populations granted access to new means of communication. It's easier to Google than it is to think, easier to hope than imagine, easier to extrapolate than to puzzle. It's easier to keep going compulsively with the flow than it is to back off a while and think this one through.