If the amount of input and information received over the centuries was compared to waves, the progression would look like the following: ripple, ripple, ripple, wave, tidal wave, tsunami. Even those who fight hard to limit technological and informational input are bombarded with a sea of often inert information and images.
Although I am not on Instagram and only watch the PBS News Hour once or twice a week, I receive enough information from emails, texts and Facebook feeds alone to overwhelm me. I know what your child is wearing, who graduated from kindergarten, and that Fidgit spinners can be lodged in throats. I also have seen images of starving children in Africa and scrolled through two years worth of political rhetoric.
Information is a powerful thing; however, when we are inundated with so much information that we begin to feel powerless and overwhelmed by the global village in which we live, it may be time to stop and think.
Neil Postman wrote an insightful book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in the mid 1980’s to discuss the way the television was shaping culture. If what he wrote was true of the television age, it is infinitely more true of the computer age. Postman writes about the ratio of input and output regarding information, which he calls the information-action ratio.
“In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information)….Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew had action-value.”
He traces the beginning of the imbalance of the information/ action ratio to the invention of the telegraph.
“But the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut…In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became the context of our news. Everything became everyone’s business.”
If the information-action scale was set off balance by the telegraph, the internet has taken the imbalance to whole new levels. We no longer have to walk to the local telegraph to send and receive information; we now have the equivalent of a lightning-speed telegraph in our pockets connecting us to the pockets of most of the known world.
I have been thinking deeply this week on the concept of action-value. I have tried to be cognizant of every piece of information I have willingly received to see what action-value might be assigned to it. What am I meant or able to do with this information? Does it have any direct bearing on my life? What tangible actions can I take regarding this information input?
Most of the information I have received has left me feeling, at best, amused or shocked, and at worst, overwhelmed, helpless, worried, heavy or guilty. The realization that most of the information I process is both emotional and inert makes me want to reconsider the information-action ratio in my little world.
While I do want to be and to raise global citizens concerned with the world, I find myself drawn more deeply to the local as a way to seek to restore balance to the information-action ratio.
Prayer has a real and tangible action-value. But even so, my heart can only hold so many burdens and pray diligently for so many people and causes. I have had to force myself to evaluate if there was room in my heart in that hour or moment for more information.
I have decided that I can only follow the goings-on of one situation or cause in such a way as to actually act on the information, whether by prayer or donation or investigation.
Before checking Facebook, I have stopped to ask myself the following questions: Are you in a place to do anything about you might see? If not, why are you looking?
I have also stopped to ask myself “What is the action-value of this information?” before posting something or dishing out information.
These small measures feel like cardboard shields against a tidal wave of information, yet they have helped me to add a few ounces to the action side of the information-action ratio.