Battling info brain-battering

Geelong Advertiser, Saturday, 16 June 2007, p. 41

Do you often get the feeling that there is just too much information hitting your brain these days? Television and radio bombard you with news and talk-back and advertisements. Newspapers deluge you with a world of crises, mayhem and violence. Everywhere you turn billboards and advertising signs scream messages about how your life won’t be worth living if you don’t rush out and buy the latest gizmo, skin care product or food supplement. The phone rings and it is someone cold calling to sell you something or to get you to support a cause or charity. Political parties are in your ear and in your face with their campaigns and promises you know will be only half kept, if we are very lucky. Turn on your computer and you have access to a world of sites and blogs and You-Tube and Google where there is more accessible material than any generation in human history has ever had to contemplate. You can watch events unfold in real time on the other side of the world or deep in space because someone somewhere has trained a camera or a mobile phone on something which he or she considers important and worth sharing.

It is all a bit much or alternatively it could be the greatest liberation of the human spirit since the access to all this knowledge is what has been lacking for the mass of the people for most of recorded history. There are still huge disparities of wealth and hence the opportunities to gain from this cornucopia of knowledge. Even when you get a handle on the material, selecting that which is valuable to you requires discrimination and sceptical analysis. I have written before it is like gold mining when sifting the precious metal from the mullock heap is like the needle in the haystack story on a gigantic scale. Even if you don’t have to pay for access directly you can bet you are financing the advertisements and the promotions of the companies and individuals whose symbols appear all over the media and the internet. Most of the Telcos and internet service providers in Australia charge like wounded bulls. Though we like to pretend we are at the frontiers of technology in this country, in truth we often lag behind not just the United States, but Europe and much of Asia in the services to which we have access and the speed of communication.

Popular, built from below, encyclopaedias like Wikipedia might give you a first approximation to accurate information on a vast range of topics, but sometimes can be very misleading. The appearance of references and what looks like the apparatus of scholarship can be a cover for shameless barrow-pushing of a particular interpretation or ideological line. Or the first sites you meet on a search for information might be a front for selling you products you did not know you wanted, or ones you did not know even existed.

So how do we filter or control our intake of knowledge and information so that the brain can still function and we can control this aspect of our environment rather than be swamped by it? One answer, of course, is to attempt to insulate yourself completely. No TV, no radio, no papers and no phone or computer. Many folks try to do this, sometimes successfully, but often by narrowing their opportunities for interaction with others in this modern world. I have to confess that I have developed a species of tunnel vision which works for me. For the range of activities in which I am interested I am happy to have the technology and the media resources which relate to these interests. The rest I filter out pretty effectively. Spam and cold callers get short shrift. There is a price to pay. There may be lots of things just out of my peripheral vision that would be useful to me if I took the trouble to find out. But that can wait for another day, and another column.

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