Information overload makes for a dangerous world in the internet age

United States presidential campaign shows how the tenor of debate has diminished over the years

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 4:06pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 11:02pm

Though the term “information age” first appeared some 40 years ago, it was the more recent popularity of smartphones that turned “having information at your fingertips” from a sci-fi fantasy into an everyday reality. So, with so much information so readily available, are we more capable of making informed choices and decisions?

Not necessarily. The United States is the internet capital and its smartphones are selling like hot cakes around the world. According to The New York Times , however, the average American is so ill-informed that he cannot even name all three branches of government or a single Supreme Court justice.

And it’s getting increasingly clear the information revolution has failed to reverse the dumbing-down process that the American democracy has been going through. A presidential debate, for example, should be a clash of ideas and visions of two of the best minds in the country. But more often than not, it becomes an occasion for the candidates to attack their opponents and make a spectacle of themselves.

Who won the Clinton-Trump debate? Certainly not Americans

To no one’s surprise, The Princeton Review found a sharp decline in the intellectual level of presidential debates in the last 150 years. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were conducted at a senior high school level. In 2000, however, Bush and Gore were speaking like sixth-graders.

In The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t, statistician Nate Silver argues that data doesn’t always help us know better, solve problems and make accurate predictions. On the contrary, it can confuse our minds and make us more prone to error. The key is to distinguish the useful information (the signal) from the noise that makes it difficult for the signal to be seen clearly.

If people fail to distinguish between the two, the result will be a society overwhelmed with not just useful information but also dangerous misinformation and disinformation. And, I’m afraid, this is exactly what our society is today. Overloaded with information from different sources, we swing back and forth between credulity and scepticism.

It is often said that a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth. That’s probably why even the most blatant lies have a ring of truth when they go viral online.

To have an idea of how serious this problem has become, look no further than the presidential race in America. When Donald Trump’s supporter Rudy Giuliani wanted to raise doubts about Hillary Clinton’s health, all he had to do was urge people to Google “Hillary Clinton illness” for proof. This forced Clinton to make a heroic appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! where she opened, with her bare hands, a jar of pickles.

Even more absurd was the charge that Barack Obama is a Muslim. People started believing this when the conservative aggregation website the Drudge Report began circulating the rumour.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Apparently, so is too much information.

Perry Lam is a local cultural critic ([email protected])