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Can an Excess of Information Lead to the Destruction of Thinking?

English Pages, 12. 4. 2022

I often cannot believe my eyes (and ears) these days what nonsense I hear. Especially in the state-funded media and on social networks. This phenomenon is usually explained by referring to lack of good education, to superficial way of thinking, to mental laziness, to carelessness, to belief in false ideologies, to being "led astray" by so-called disinformation. However, none of this tells us why it is so, why it is now reaching a completely different dimension than before, and why it is impossible to explain the absurdity of such views to their proponents.

In this short reflection I can only express one of the many relevant dimensions of this phenomenon; I have no greater ambition. My hypothesis is that thinking is damaged by an excessive amount of information, which "overloads and burdens" people so much that they have no time to think. Ray Bradbury made a similar point seven decades ago in his famous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. In this book, people were constantly "flooded" with more and more information (Bradbury's TV walls), and trying to consume it became a substitute for thinking. Half a century ago, when the TV "culture" began, I didn't understand why people would come home and turn on the TV. Now I'm beginning to understand. They don't want to think.

If you try to consume all the available information, you don't need to think. The tragedy is that you believe you know everything. Yet knowledge and accumulating information are two different things. To know means to be able to sort, to evaluate, to place information in the right "boxes". In chess terminology, you must know if this or that information belongs on A6 or on D7. Without this knowledge, the information itself is meaningless. A large amount of unsorted and uncategorized information hopelessly damages human thinking.

It is certainly influencing my thinking as well. Intentionally, I almost never watch TV. It not only brings information, it effectively manipulates by both its volume and selection. Newspapers certainly do that too, yet the reader can skip through them; on television it's not possible. That makes it far more dangerous.

Even without a TV that's constantly on, I am sure that I don’t have a shortage of information. I'm surrounded by newspapers, magazines, books, the internet. Just today I received three magazines from the US and one from Switzerland. I can only read a fraction of them. On the same day, I got about five Czech magazines on my desk. The choice of what to read cannot be made for me by someone else. To make a choice, one needs theories, concepts, hypotheses, ideologies, but these are not the product of information, they are the product of thinking, reflecting, studying, working.

People often believe that they are not influenced by anything, that they are only getting information. This is nonsense. We differ not in the volume of information we absorb. We differ in the theories that classify and evaluate it. It's not a question of speed-reading, it's a question of thinking.

The widely praised, seemingly neutralistic term "information society" is one of the fallacies of our time. People have always relied on information; every society has been "information-based". People have always had a demand for information. Its extent is determined by a "budget" constraint (as the Nobel Prize winner in economics George Stigler put it in 1961), but this constraint is not only determined by the budget (i.e. income in monetary terms), but also by the absorptive capacity of man and therefore the time he or she is willing to devote to the search for information. (After all, the saying that time is money is no coincidence.)

There could not be any major shift on the demand side. Twenty-four hours a day remains a hard constraint. Perhaps today one has to devote less time to work to satisfy one's other needs and has therefore more time to search for information. In any case, information is a "superior good"; a social status-giving good (some economists use the term positional good), demand for which increases with growing wealth.

But a revolution has taken place on the supply side. Thanks to powerful information technologies, information has become cheap, and therefore increasingly accessible. Especially its spreading is easy. This is also why it is easy and tempting to consume information as a substitute for thinking.

The exchange of information was and is part of everyday life. Extra information, above and beyond that coming from the everyday life, used to be supplied by the media. It was the editorial boards that decided which information to publish and which not. I do not want to say that editorial boards do not exist anymore, but their role has fallen considerably. As a consequence of the rejection of hierarchy, management and leadership, as a consequence of anarchizing individualism, the role of an individual journalist has radically increased. The illusion of unlimited freedom is above all, and the journalist is praised for being an extroverted exhibitionist with a simple task: the more attention he or she attracts, the better.

On top of all this, the low cost of spreading information makes it easy to "self-publish" a variety of texts. More and more books are getting out into the world in the form of self-publishing, i.e. without any review of the text by publishers and editorial boards. All you need is not love, but a printing machine. This fundamentally changes the amount of information. What has also changed is the size of texts. Nowadays, it’s mostly short texts, often just "shouts", rather than sentences. It's enough to look at "social media", where this form of communication dominates. Arguments that would take context into account are usually missing there.

The disappearance of thinking - as a by-product of the overproduction of irrelevant information - means that the information society increasingly becomes a caricature of itself. Is there any way to change this?

Václav Klaus, translated from Czech language, April 12, 2022


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