Technology, information filters and institutions – why it may now be time to worry

Maybe it is the stage I have reached in my thinking, or maybe a general trend, but I find myself more and more coming across the work of a group I might call “techno-sceptics”. These are people who, while highly proficient in their own use of technology, are sceptical and concerned about its impact on society in varying ways. These concerns have a long history, of course, going back through, to pick a few, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H.G.Wells, Mary Shelley and much further if you care to trace it. The modern writers I am reading in this camp include figures like Jaron Lanier, Audrey Watters and Tara Brabazon. I find their work fascinating and provocative, and commend it to anyone with any interest in how technology is affecting society..

One of the writers this group often cites as a critical influence is the late American academic Neil Postman, so I decided to get to grips with what seems to be considered his masterpiece, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I was not disappointed – it is an accessible, thoughtful, powerful analysis and I can see it inspiring several blog posts. But I will start with one idea in particular that makes modern trends so much more comprehensible.

We hear all the time about suffering “information overload”, at least in Western society. The phenomenon is not completely new – for centuries there has been more information around than the average person can navigate or assimilate. However, the volume of information has increased exponentially throughout history. The invention of writing ratcheted up the amount of information available to people, the printing press gave it another huge boost and then it accelerated through the nineteenth and twentieth century, as we acquired the telegraph, telephone, radio, television and of course, most dramatically, the world wide web. A study in 2003, one of many of its type, showed that 90% of data in the world had been generated in the previous two years. So much is widely observed and understood.

What is less well understood, though fairly obvious once pointed out, is how this affects the role of institutions. Postman, who is here developing the analysis of James Beniger, describes institutions as, at least in part, mechanisms for controlling information. This can be seen very obviously in a court of law, where there are strict rules about what information is permissible in settling a case. This is because there may be any amount of information relevant to a case and to make any sense of the situation, the “allowable information” must be filtered according to agreed criteria. In fact, this role of information filter is true of social institutions generally. Our traditional institutions – government, schools, universities, political parties, the family, even the nation – to a greater or lesser extent control the flow of information to and between their members. Sometimes this control is exercised physically, as churches and governments have banned books from time to time, but more often it is exercised in “soft” ways. An institution delivers messages about what information is important and should be received and what should be ignored. Take the example I work in – a university. A university teaches some subjects and not others, thereby conveying which subjects are worthy of study, in its view. A curriculum will include some writers, ideas and texts and not others. A student is therefore having their information filtered (and, hopefully, being taught to develop their own filters, but that is another story). Families allow their children access to certain information, but not all. Political parties maintain world views that privilege certain information sources over others.

Postman further points out that the flood of information means that all these institutions are under attack, and being systematically weakened. This is surely much more obvious now than when he was writing in 1992. The populist backlash across Europe in the elections held in May of this year demonstrated very clearly the weakness of mainstream political parties as well as the European Union itself. Universities and schools find themselves subject to increasing criticism and external direction. Organised religion is declining fast, even in the US, by far the most religious Western nation. The traditional family is morphing, and certainly becoming less effective at controlling information flows (as a father of two teenagers, I know this for a fact).

Does this matter? Isn’t it a good thing that these institutions cannot control what we read, think or say any more? Maybe. Many years ago I left organised religion because I found its restrictions offensive and incomprehensible, so I appreciate the upside here. However, Postman does make a striking point. The traditional institutions have something in common – they are driven by a sense of moral purpose of some sort. This is very clear for religion, but education has traditionally been driven by a desire to make people into better people, political parties to achieve certain moral ends, and so on. In losing these institutions, we lose this sense, and quite possibly the whole idea of moral purpose itself.

Because, of course, we still need information filters. If we lose the traditional institutions, we need alternatives that will help us judge what information to expose ourselves to, and what to ignore. Postman died in 2003, before “Web 2.0” really came to fruition, but events have probably unfolded pretty much as he would have predicted. We have not abandoned information filters at all, in fact it would be impossible for us to do so. We have just replaced the old filters with new ones. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rise of “mass media” in various forms, which have been our key filters for a while, but the newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television channels are now suffering in turn. At least in the West, the two most dominant institutions now managing the information we receive seem to me to be Google and Facebook.  They are qualitatively different from the traditional institutions in many ways. They do use the language of moral purpose at times, and I am sure there is some idealism among their workforce, but the fact is that they are publicly traded companies, legally answerable to their shareholders who are primarily looking for a financial return. And, although they differ in many ways, Google and Facebook have a similar business model. Their business model is to find out personal information about you through your online behaviour and then sell that information to advertisers. In other words, their ultimate purpose is to sell you stuff. And our ultimate purpose, in their world, is to buy stuff. We don’t have any other function.

The idea has my attention now. This is where, for all the undoubted and wonderful benefits of technology, I start to worry about where we have got to, and where we are going.

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