Figuring it out in an age of information overload


Where we get our information from and how it is processed matters. In fact, it matters so much that emotions, view of the world, ability to engage in meaningful dialogue, lead effectively, and think critically are all impacted by the information we consume. In addition, it is essential to recognize the process of how we acquire information and also what we do to determine its efficacy. Unfortunately, that takes time, patience and curiosity.

Alvin Toffler, many years ago, hinted at much of the above in his prescient book Future Shock. He predicted the transitory nature of relationships, anxiety that ensues from quick societal changes, and the need for perpetual adjustment to meet the moment. This impacts knowledge. It also impacts how we receive it.

While not all of Toffler’s futuristic musings have come into fruition, the basic core of his assumptions certainly must be considered. In the midst of a storm it is difficult to see the calm seas of other times. To coin a phrase when considering the present–it is what it is.

Discerning and sorting out information is fast becoming a lost art. In addition, to quote a Toffler term, we are probably encountering something he referred to as “information overload.” This challenges the basic core values of our existence. Critical thinking is now more important than ever.

It’s been said that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” To complicate matters let me add that you don’t know, that you don’t know what you don’t know. At the risk of sounding supercilious it seems as though the desperation to assimilate has eroded some of our ability to discern and sort out the necessary from that which is superfluous. The end result is a conveyer belt that leads us to a place where mirroring quality and depth has become common fare. Such things seem essential when the world changes so quickly.

Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, all leading musical figures from our not so distant past, would not get past Simon Cowell these days. They do not have the right look, their voices are not stylized and pretty, and heaven forbid, they write much of their own stuff. We have become accustomed to reality shows that posture at reality (and it is not just in the entertainment business where this is felt).

Even the field of education is significantly influenced by perception. In fact, schooling has become much like rotisserie sports–all about the numbers and played by those who mostly aren’t playing. Test scores now determine a school’s ranking. Recently, a few new criteria have been added, but those institutions that are successful in the public school realm often benefit from being in a community with financial advantages. Success is determined by numbers and pays little attention to conditions, effort, relationships and connectedness.

For the most part what I have just written is not new. In fact, the disconnected-alienation dynamics, detailed above, are being played out in counselor’s offices, schools, the work place, homes and neighborhoods. A lack of meaning, community, faith, and worth are often camouflaged by money, drugs, prescription meds, sex, hits on Facebook postings, etc. All of this falls back to how we learn, what we experience and where we think all of this leads. Rapid change creates anxiety. It also promotes quick fixes to meet daily challenges.

So, what on earth do you do with something as big, yet not fully defined, as this? Obviously things change, progress is made and accommodating to the present conditions needs consideration. But, how do we maintain a sense of community in a world that is forever evolving? How do we maintain a sense of community in a world where so much communication is happening in cyber space? Human beings are interacting with each other much differently than they have in the past. Face-to-face interaction has given way to tweets. Something is lost in translation. We are extremely susceptible to not being able to discern the truth from ‘fake news’.

Folks once paid money to see the Cardiff Giant. In addition, some still swear that Crop Circles are created by Extra Terrestrials despite significant evidence proving otherwise (see Bower and Chorley). Finally, the Dunning-Kruger effect helps to explain how and why many people come to believe what they believe. To them, Bob Dylan’s quote “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie” makes a great deal of sense. Facts might be distorted and hidden, but truth remains waiting to be revealed.

There are things about our present time that are wonderful. We have created medicine to cure many illnesses. Technology has made life easier and the world has become smaller to the point where working together is essential. Despite all of this, we are encountering the existential crisis of our moment. How do we advance, yet keep the basic precepts of humanity? No one really knows the answers to such questions. To some extent few even ask them anymore. Perhaps for answers we must first seek the questions and then build from there.

Without too much pretense I will ask that you ruminate on a few simple considerations. These are nothing more than the hopes, observations, experiences and assumptions derived from my time on earth. The intent is to offer balance and a sense of existential/spiritual continuity for a life rocketing towards the future (while constantly seeking it myself).

Home remedies for Future Shock:

  • Make sure that the vast majority of your relationships are done in person. If this is not possible opt for a phone call or a hand written letter.
  • Find some time to connect with the earth. Walk outside, plant a garden, swim in a pond, hike, bird watch, just read under a tree.
  • Read books that challenge your imagination (notice I said books). Crawl up on a couch, read in your favorite room. Also, if you have kids, encourage them to read as well.
  • Reach out to diverse populations. For all of the differences, there is much to share.
  • Look for multiple sources when getting the news. Do not constantly go to those leaning one way or the other.
  • Look at the stars. They are the future and the past.
  • Even if you are old–play. Find a way of climbing, running, skipping, singing, swimming, recreating, etc.
  • Feed your sense of spirituality.
  • Make sure that technology works for you and not the other way around.
  • Always remember that you are constantly writing chapters to your own book.
  • Shake hands, hug, kiss those you love, smile and cry. These are essential connections that defy time.
  • Question, question, question. Challenge the source, define the purpose and don’t be afraid to change your opinion.
  • Make lots of mistakes (revel in them).
  • Learn from the past–make that a part of your present and future.
  • Failure is okay. Giving up will get you nowhere.
  • Don’t become consumed with consuming. Things can never replace people and experiences.
  • Be nice, be fair, be honest, be willing to change if necessary.

I could go on, but we all have our lists. Mine simply includes the stuff that recognizes the uniqueness of all of us. Being connected to others, the earth and ourselves must go along with our connection to the Internet. This creates commonality, security and a social mooring. Hope to see you soon. A frequent contributor to this newspaper, Bob Houghtaling is the long-time director of the East Greenwich drug program.


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