Tag Archives: information overload

The Disciplined Consumer

A Presley “45”           wikipedia.org

Human brains which have been alternately addled and enhanced by the machinery of the electronic age are accustomed to limits imposed by time and space.

There probably aren’t many times Elvis Presley and Giacomo Puccini are mentioned in the same sentence. But they did have at least one musical problem in common. By extension, it turns out to be the same problem we all face. Both needed to produce pieces that would last no more than four minutes. That time length was about the limit for the 78-rpm records that were beginning to revolutionize music during Puccini’s lifetime. And so it is thought to be more than an accident that his melodic operas include dozens of arias that would just fit on a 10 or 12 inch disk.  For a sample try out the great Tenor aria, Nessun Dorma from the opera Turandot.  Among other things, it is a virtual FIFA/World Cup theme song.

To this day the four-minute song remains more or less the standard for music producers guiding a commercial musician into lots of radio airplay. It was a similar kind of brevity that was required on RCA’s smaller new 45-rpm disks that fully launched the pop “single,” and Elvis Presley’s career soon after. Jazz performers might riff on a song for seven or eight minutes. But they would need to wait a few more years for Columbia’s “long playing” record that could handle a solid 25 minutes per side.

Though our preferred media have continued to evolve, the media squeeze on time hasn’t really changed.  Brains which have been variously addled and enhanced by the machinery of the electronic age have gotten used to time and space limits imposed by physical and commercial constraints. Music, news, conversations, advertising; it hardly matters. All pop in and out of our lives in rapid succession. And while we can keep shifting our attention to try to accommodate all of this clutter, we have no chance to expand the hours of the day to fit more in.

True, digital media can store and retrieve the largest works of writing and music with ease. Today anyone with an internet connection and even a modest computer also has, by default, a library, a museum, a performing arts theater, and nearly unlimited access to the intellectual output of the world’s cultures.

But we still mostly prefer to stay with the familiar, and with it, the same time and space limitations that our grandparents would have recognized: news articles cut to “short reads,” television journalists given only three minutes to tell a complex story, or expert commentators whose video sound bites still hover at an average of just under ten seconds.  And don’t even get us started on Twitter’s measly 140 characters.

What’s a consumer of this cultural maw to do?  One response is to try to swim with the tide by becoming perpetual information-grazers. We breeze through media content quickly before moving on to other new enticements. In communication terms, most of us are “peripheral information processors” most of the time.  Like restless children moving from toy to toy, there is a constant search for new stimulation. Many advertisers and content providers feel lucky to get even a minimal level of attention. Web sites like this one struggle to hold a reader’s interest, measured by Google as a site’s “bounce rate” and its average “session duration.”  (This site averages about two minutes per visit.)  Print advertising gets even less time from restless readers. As for traditional television viewing: family members frequently migrate to separate screens.  Even so, the remote channel selection button for a family’s 60-inch television is probably the most cherished piece of real estate in a household.

But there are advantages to also swimming against the tide. We arguably gain a great deal by consciously giving up grazing in favor of more purposeful media use. Exchanging breadth for depth usually brings clearer rewards. The goal ought to be to find time for long-form content.

Think of the monumental intellectual and artistic achievements that endure. They are not just arias, but entire operas; also the entire books, symphonies, cinematic masterpieces, epic poems and novels, lectures, paradigm-shifting monographs and essays that keep inviting us back to explore their wonders.  These are brain-shifting media forms that challenge and reward in equal measure. Given the ease of access we have to most of these materials, they only await our decision to sometimes forgo the transient for the permanent.  We just need the raised consciousness to know when we are wasting our time.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

The Risks of Drinking from a Fire Hose


Source: Wikipedia.org
                  Source: Wikipedia.org

To the digital native, being truly alone without some sort of external distraction is—irony of ironies—”unnatural,” almost as if the chatter from our own mind is the rhetoric of a stranger.

We can easily feel the burdens of having more knowledge than we can handle. Searching online is like trying to drink from a fire hose.  We should have known it would happen when “Google” became a verb in addition to a noun. Type in something as straightforward as “Green Mountains of Vermont,” and you’ll get about 3.3 million hits. Similarly, catch a few minutes of CNN in an airport and perhaps you get the deaths of children in a bombed Gaza hospital, news of a missing airliner, killer tornadoes in the Midwest.

The hose analogy is suggestive, but the proportions are probably wrong.  Our pervasive media use is more like trying to snag a cup of water from one of the massive outflow tunnels exiting the bottom of Hoover Dam. The point is the same: the flood of information coming at us from digital sources is simply overwhelming, giving rise to another common water-based cliche: How do we “tame the information tide?”

We all know the sources that push us away from ourselves. In addition to online searches there are mobile phones, phone apps, tweets and texts, e-mail, cable and broadcast programming, news alerts, RSS feeds, Facebook “notifications,” not to mention blogs like this one.  In addition, many of us are still deeply dependent on newspapers, magazines, movies, product catalogs, Pandora, MP3s, radio and podcasts.  Every waking minute of every day offers some distraction to drain away our abilities to focus, concentrate and—most ominously—face the unpredictable beast of our own thoughts.

On a commuter train recently it was hard to not hear the increasingly heated cell phone conversation unfolding between a passenger and her mother.  It sounded like both sides were picking old wounds that have never quite healed. Charges of emotional neglect and indifference hurled back and forth. The rider’s injunctions were laced with scorn. And she seemed to not notice that others where an involuntary audience to her woes.

One could not help but think: was this really the best moment to have this discussion?  Shouldn’t precious and fragile family relations be maintained in a better setting that could increase the chances of a better result?  In other words, must we accept the socially awkward terms of usage that new media randomly impose on us?  We seem increasingly unable to manage our informational world.

To say we pay a price for trying to bear up under media intrusions of our own making is now obvious. For most of us the compulsion to keep checking back on the open channels we have set up is nearly total and time consuming.  We choose to keep our digital companions on.  We willingly succumb to the “breaking news” story from a cable news outlet, or the random tweets and texts of others.  We may even stop a lively conversation to check a minor disputed fact that has just surfaced.

For the privilege of total immersion, we pay the price of slowly alienating ourselves from ourselves. To the digital native, being truly alone without some sort of external distraction is—irony of ironies—unnatural: almost as if the chatter coming from our own mind is the rhetoric of a stranger.

That’s a problem because we probably have some interesting things to hear from our inner selves.  A common view is that our intrapersonal chatter is often dysfunctional: full of anxieties, useless fantasies, and other forms of impractical mental skywriting. But all these attributes of consciousness contribute to our self-awareness. They are important.  We need time to work this stuff out.  They are among the reasons we walk and sleep. Not giving ourselves the time to know what we think sets us up to be aimless and disoriented.

To be sure, if media theory tells us anything, it is that our media-use habits don’t revert. There’s no waiting-for-a-phone-call Meet-Me-in-St.-Louis future for any of us.  Media evolve, and we do our best to keep up.  We just have to work a little harder to not allow them to squeeze a precious sentience out of our lives.

The next time you are stuck waiting for something to happen, try listening to the productive insights that your brain has on offer. The trick is moving past the momentary boredom of being truly “with” yourself.  Soon enough you will discover the neglected personal business that truly matters.

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