The Democratic Quality Vector and
the New Social Agreement

Information Overload

We live in an Age of Distraction – a state described by Crawford, Hassan, and others. This means distractions abound in modern culture, and can reach you nearly everywhere. Today, the solutions to societal ills, finding an agreed upon truth and improved group decisionmaking process, seem increasingly out of reach.

There are many causes of societal disengagement: economic dislocation, poor health, and information overload. Discussing each cause of alienation provides an opportunity to think through how proxy voting systems can alleviate voter apathy and turn what exists as distractions today into focused struggles for a more just society. The present argument models how rising above the muddled and maddening confusions of everyday life allows us to re-assess greater meaning in our role as community members and citizens.

Distractions create power vacuums wherein bad actors can profit, free from accountability and citizen oversight. Conversely, only an engaged citizenry can hold politicians and bureaucrats responsible for their words and actions.

Robert Putnam’s ground-breaking research in Bowling Alone demonstrated that although we are as busy as ever, present life choices are detrimental to social capita. That means entrenching a more democratic ethic will be challenging.

One of the issues with imposing a democratic ethic is the lack of commonalities. Many of our ideas are not shared widely. One reason for this is the internet. Google, for example, has placed a staggering abundance of information at our fingertips, but is more information necessarily better? Does too much information in fact work against the rational pursuit of truth?

The specialist may refine internet searches but the general reader may agree with the opinion of film critic Roger Ebert, who compared internet research to “using a library assembled by pack rats and vandalized nightly.” The painful distraction the internet provides does not come from the variety of rich sources of information now available on the worldwide web, but rather the large amount of irrelevant or fraudulent data that one must parse through as well.

David Shenk has described the state of information overload as “data smog.” Shenk’s inquiry into data smog finds that, over a short period of time, our society has gone from a state of informational scarcity to an opposite and equally confounding age of informational overload.

Shenk decries information overload as “the noxious muck and druck” that “obstructs […] contemplation” that ”spoils conversation, literature and even entertainment.” The author worries that alongside increasing stress levels, the distraction of digital data and messaging reduces the human capacity for skepticism, producing “less sophisticated […] consumers and citizens.” The harmful effects of information overload that Shenk traces do not stem from increased quantity of information so much as from reduced quality of information. This degrading value does not limit itself to the electronic realm.

In response to funding cutbacks in the digital age, print media outlets have adopted the practice of disguising advertisements and articles, known as “advertorials.” This disguises advertising as something more trustworthy. This decreases the quality of information. Here as elsewhere, the decreased quality of information available on the web forces an undercutting of professional standards in competing forms of media – the task of differentiating between content and advertising, formerly the purview of broadcasters and publishers, now falls to the individual user. And they often do not have adequate tools for the job. These effects also impede the efficiency of businesses. Information overload and digital smog introduce new sets of problems into the corporate environment, as Angela and Anne Morris have demonstrated. This makes the reader not trust those around them. The authors write that, “an abundance of information, instead of enabling people to do their job, threatens to engulf and diminish his or her control over the [workplace] situation.”

The number of individuals in the class group of the “information poor” has reduced. We have democratized internet service through public access points meaning that our society has information. At the same time, the number of citizens who are “information poor” has also increased, because the availability of quality information has decreased. By simultaneously increasing the quantity of data available and degrading the quality of that data, we have made finding truth and through it trust, very difficult.

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