Restricting the Firehose in the Age of InformationSomervell County Salon-Glen Rose, Rainbow, Nemo, Glass....Texas


Restricting the Firehose in the Age of Information

6 August 2005 at 1:58:02 PM

From Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

The relationship between information and the mechanisms for its control is fairly simple to describe. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown of tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.

The dangers of information on the loose may be understood by the analogy I described earlier with an individual's biological immune system, which serves as a defense against the uncontrolled growth of cells. Cellular growth is, of course, a normal process without which organic life cannot survive. But without a well-functioning immune system, an organism cannot managed cellular growth. It becomes disordered and destroys the delicate interconnectedness of essential organs. An immune system, in short, destroys unwanted cells. All societies have institutions and techniques that function as does a biological immune system. Their purpose is to maintain a balance between the old and the new, between novelty and tradition, between meaning and conceptual disorder, and they do so by "destroying" unwanted information.... social institutions of all kinds function as control mechanisms. This is important to say, because most writers on the subject of social institutions (especially sociologists) do not grasp the idea that any decline in the force of institutions makes people vulnerable to information chaos. To say that life is destabilized by weakened institutions is merely to say that information loses its use and therefore becomes a source of confusion rather than coherence.

Social institutions sometimes do their work simply by denying people access to information, but principally by directing how much weight and therefore, value, one must give to information. Social institutions are concerned with the meaning of information and can be quite rigorous in enforcing standards of admission. Take as a simple example a couart of law. Almost all rules for the presentation of evidence and for the conduct of those who participate in a trial are designed to limit the amount of information that is allowed entry into the system. In our system, a judge disallows "hearsay" or personal opinion as evidence except under strictly controlled circumstances, spectators are forbidden to express their feelings, a defendants's previous convictions may not be mentioned, juries are not allowed to hear arguments over the inadmissibility of evidence-these are instances of information control. The rules on which such control is based derive from a theory of justice that defines what information may be considered relevant and especially, what information may be considered irrelevant. The theory may be deemed flawed in some respects- lawyers, for example, may disagree over the rules governing the flow of information- but no one disputes that information must be regulated in some manner. In even the simplest law case, thousands of events may have had a bearing on the dispute and it is well understood that, if they were all permitted entry, there could be no theory of due process, trials would have no end, law itself would be restricted to meaninglessness. In short, the rule of law is concerned with the "destruction" of information.

We intend to talk about the premises in the above paragraphs over the next week, as it relates to the news media and privacy concerns. The idea that technology and information firehosed out to the public has no context, and needs a control mechanism is a valid one. When technology, for its own sake, allows us to have 24x7 information coming at us from all parts of the world, without context, without necessarily any tie to our own personal lives, by necessity it must be controlled or limited. We ask these questions: Is the public served well by the television media, a social institution by this time, which, by definition, must control what news is shown? Is news best or even well-served by its being shown on television media versus print or internet? If television media makes decisions on what they will and won't show and the control mechanisms put in place don't place proper emphasis on news that doesn't display well on the television, should it be relied upon as a qualified news vendor? If a television news media vendor displays news or other content that has no social, historical, or ethical content and is at odds with the viewer's values, is there any reason it should be relied upon as a valued source itself?

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