Sunday, November 27, 2016

From Information Scarcity to Information Overload

In what seems to be a paradoxical way, I happened upon a very thoughtful piece written by Marriah Raphael Starr, a Facebook friend (who I also know in real life) reflecting on the magnitude of change that has taken place since the 1990's. He wrote a very thoughtful essay on Facebook, the kind of essay that I would have found in a newspaper or magazine article in 1990.

Marriah notes that in 1990, "We lived in environments characterized by low system noise, high vitality, intrinsic values, and symbols that accurately reflected reality." And in 2016, all of these aspects have reversed entirely.

Let me explain what he means:


Marriah describes the media environment of 1990 as "low saturation." He notes: Only 5 major television channels were available without a cable subscription: NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and PBS. And cable tv was very rare. Records and tape cassettes were stlll the media for people to listen to music. Phone conversations took place over landlines. Cell phones were rare and limited to phone conversations for the few that had them. We did not have 24-7 programming on tv. Word of mouth and the postal service were the predominant ways of receiving messages. Photos were taken on cameras using film and only a print photo album allowed people to share their pictures. E-mail did not yet exist on a mass market level. Nightly news broadcasts and the morning newspaper were the only ways to get state wide, national and international news.

Marriah called this "information scarcity, because information was hard to produce and hard to get." If someone didn't have access to the information contained in libraries, book stores, movie theaters and private homes, Marriah suggests that a "side effect of information scarcity was boredom." And being creative was the only alternative to being bored.


Marriah defines high vitality as the likelihood that a good book, song or movie would go viral, because people were bored and any cultural product that received lots of attention, either quickly or over time would reach what Malcolm Gladwell calls "the tipping point." A key piece here, is what Marriah calls "intrinsic values." A good song, good book or good movie was actually good. Some intrinsic property "within the cultural product" attracted people to it. Too, Marriah adds, "when people read a news story in a newspaper in 1990, they could guarantee that the words written in the story reflected what actually happened. When a politician made a speech in 1990, voters knew that the speech reflected real events." Marriah summed this up by saying, "The map is the territory."

He then goes on to explain how all of these qualities have reversed in 2016:

* With the internet, smart phones and online social networks, we live with high system noise, instead of low system noise

* With all these media of information and system noise, "we have gone from information scarcity to information surplus in only one generation"

* Boredom has been replaced by a constant barrage of information from all of our technological information channels (e-mails, smartphones, cable television, infinite videos, infinite websites...)

* Marriah postulates that with such a high information management problem, persuasion is the last thing on people's minds. He believes that it is all people can do to keep up with all of the information that is "pushed at us."

* Marriah says products no longer have intrinsic values, but are designed for specific groups of people. Songs, books, movies and other products may not be inherently good, but with a large enough fan base, there is a market for them.

* As we have seen with the recent election, campaign speeches and news stories no longer have to reflect reality. And many people will still support a candidate regardless of the facts.

Marriah concludes that we have lost control over "the vitality of information, the intrinsic properties of information" and "the connection between information and reality." The best way to survive today, he suggests, "is to maintain low system noise and produce information that reflects our shared reality."

While all our social media are fun and informative in many ways, there is no substitute for the gathering of groups and communities of like-minded and caring people to talk real time, face to face. And from these conversations, organize to speak and take action.