If journalism is history in a hurry, can we describe social media as the hurrying of history? Because of mobile Internet, events are ‘instantiated’ in our timelines and webpages. We constantly access the Internet not simply to read the mirror images of this morning’s newspapers or videos of last night’s news reports but to monitor the news as it happens. Watch livestream events, participate in crowdsourced reporting, information is delivered in realtime.
The immediate and obvious consequence of this phenomenon is information overload. When big data are reduced into 140 characters and creative graphics, they are easily exchanged in the cyberspace which allows everyone to consume and create information at the same time. We become both victims and aggressors in the digital warfare; specialists and spectators in the information superhighway.
The problem is different and even worse than excessive TV viewing because the latter can be easily solved by switching off the machine. But a smartphone is not only loaded with numerous must-have apps, its basic features – SMS and call – are considered as among the essentials of 21st century living. The power-off button is actually seldom used today. In other words, ‘the data will always get through’ even if our gadgets are on silent mode.
But few are complaining of information fatigue. In fact, the trend is in the direction of promoting greater online presence. Is visual stress a non-issue among the digital natives? Or perhaps many are still hypnotized by the allure of virtual communities. Maybe we are too engrossed, fascinated, and distracted by the neverending flow of data to notice how our seemingly mundane Internet activities are deeply affecting our senses. For example, are we really reading something when we go online or are we just simply absorbing the visuals that appear and fade in the multiple tabs of our browsers?
The good news is that Internet overexposure is partly addressed by netizen campaigns that seek to enhance and protect our online experience. Through these initiatives, there is still hope to make the Internet a better and safer place for everybody, especially the children. But responsible Internet usage is not enough.
The other essential task is to make the Internet more truly social. We should begin by acknowledging that the Internet, despite its democratic functions, also reinforces individualism and apathy in society. By bombarding us with too much (trivial) information, the Internet lulls us into inaction. For many people, the ability to consume and exchange information is equated with action. Experience is understood as the accumulation, storing, and spreading of information. We feel empowered just because we can freely access and manipulate information. Perhaps unconsciously, we use information to “anaesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex” (Susan Sontag). As our social worlds deteriorate, we find solace in the information frenzy of our social networks.
The political goal is suddenly redirected to maintain open interactions in the cyberspace in order not to impede the intake and flow of information. The unintended effect is the narrowing of our concept of political engagement.
The Internet has ceaselessly provided us with useful tools that revolutionized communication and information sharing in the world. Information is suddenly made available for everybody. Everything can be fact-checked now in an instant. Solutions are already downloadable. But this is also the same reason why action seems inadequate and less forceful in the real world. Reversing the formulation made by media guru Marshall McLuhan when he described the legacy of typography in Western society, what we have today is a proliferation of tools that give us the power to react without acting. By leading us to think that political action is the same with information access, the Internet has become a glorified platform for non-involvement and detachment. Information swapping becomes the preferred form of political intervention.
Information overload is an appropriate term. It reminds us that what gets exchanged at dizzying speed in the cyberspace are simply information, which are mostly spam anyway. There is no such thing as truth overload or truth fatigue. Fact-checking through Google is different from the ‘truth procedure.’
Therefore, truth-seeking should be the norm in our everyday Internet activities. This approach would hopefully prevent us from getting distracted by the noise and clutter that pervade the Internet world. Restore politics in information, fight for truth and only truth in the Internet.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email: email@example.com