In the excellent article below, Matthew Syed discusses if we are lost in a sea of data online and if the truth is lost in a sea of irrelevance. This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.
We’ve never had so much information at our fingertips — and so little wisdom to do anything useful with it
In the time it takes you to reach the end of this paragraph, 15 million emails will have been sent, 30,000 tweets and three million Facebook updates. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of blogs, Instagram posts and news articles will have been added to a running total measured in billions. During the biblical flood the world was supposedly overflowing with water; today we are drowning in gigabytes.
You may say: well, with this column, Matthew, you are adding to the deluge, and you’d be right. But, at the same time, perhaps we can all acknowledge that this torrent of information — which we once believed would be liberating for culture and society — has not had the desired effect. Indeed, I think we need to accept that, as a species, we are changing in ways we never predicted, never voted on and, perhaps worst of all, are losing the capacity to stop.
Two great dystopian visions of the 20th century were put into words by Englishmen, as different in style and psychology as one could imagine for individuals inhabiting the same slice of history. George Orwell, much the more famous these days, was fearful of censorship. His anxiety — understandable given that he was writing at the high point of Stalinism and just after Hitler — was that governments would limit access to information, thus placing rigid boundaries around the space of human thought and inquiry. These fears rapidly coalesced into an apparition hovering over western societies, and it is rare to go a week without someone fretting about cancel culture or the editorial strictures of tech companies.
I still think Orwell has much to teach us, but the more I reflect upon our times, the more I come back to that other British visionary, Aldous Huxley. In Brave New World, published in 1932, his fear was not that information would be limited by a sinister state but that we would be deluged by so much of it that we would find ourselves thrashing around in an ocean of unnavigable size. We would struggle to find truth amid swirling currents of data and become ever more sidelined by waves of triviality. As Huxley said in a series of remarkable essays in 1958, we should never underestimate “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the cultural critic Neil Postman teases out the fundamental differences in these two competing visions. “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
As I survey our world today, I can’t help thinking that Huxley’s vision is the more prophetic. The information superhighway has led to great leaps forward in science and tech, but has had a rather more equivocal effect on mass consciousness. Pornography accounts for a third of all downloads, and the wormhole of YouTube and bottomless scroll of Facebook parasitise our attention spans. As a species we become congenitally distracted, gorging on dopamine spikes of digital titillation in a not dissimilar way to the highly engineered snacks of Big Food. The obesity epidemic, in sociocultural terms, might thus be conceived as the physical counterpart to the digital binge that represents the daily diet of billions.
In his remarkable book Human as Media: The Emancipation of Authorship, Andrey Miroshnichenko notes that the two information revolutions of history overturned the social and political order. The first was the development of phonetic script in ancient Egypt, which caused “palaces and temples to lose their monopoly over the production of information”. The second occurred with Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, which brought in its train the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and birth of the modern world.
What we are seeing today, though, is arguably more consequential. Many have pondered the ramifications of self-creating AI and the like, but Huxley was more interested in the interaction between media and attention spans. Psychology and neuroscience teach that humans struggle to focus on more than one thing at once, a point that anybody who has played three-card monte with a hustler on a side street will testify. Simple misdirection can cause people to overlook what is really going on.
The internet, which now has more than 20 billion devices hooked into it, might be seen, in this sense, as the greatest misdirection technology yet known. We are all connected to this network with its apps, games and virtual ecospheres, but is it not leading us ever further away from the real world? The longer we stay online, the more money platforms make by harvesting our data and selling it to advertisers; yet they also use this data to make its content more compulsive and alluring, to the point where you can stand in any queue or public space and notice a peculiarly modern tic: people constantly reaching for their pockets, often without even realising they are doing so.
Some readers may retort that they only occasionally glance at their smartphone, but the global trend is of a rising tide of internet usage in every region. As the writer David Perrell puts it: “Today, we face endless demands on our attention. Think of all the things you need to check — email, texts, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and the news — just to ‘keep up’ with the world. The problem is that so much of the information we consume is trivial and irrelevant.”
The great biologist EO Wilson wrote: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” Look around the world, the way we are surrounded by mind-bending technology while our creaking political and social institutions struggle to function coherently, and you’ll see the profundity of this insight. With limited attentions spans and endless distractions, we may be moving into a new phase of history envisioned by Huxley when he wrote of societies “whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of … mythology and metaphysical fantasy”. The metaverse, anyone?
Techno-optimists will dismiss this analysis, arguing that Luddites have always feared the latest invention. They will argue that we will develop ways to harness opportunities while filtering out threats. I myself regard this as dangerous hubris. Ask yourself: are we becoming a wiser species? Are we becoming more capable of dealing with our challenges? Or are we struggling with the very complexity we invented, while ever more intoxicated by the modern equivalents of the feelies, orgy porgy and centrifugal bumblepuppy?
I don’t have a solution, but I do think the crucial first step is diagnosing the disease. As Postman put it, channelling Huxley: “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”