Time to open Pandora’s Box! This post touches on some deep and controversial problems surrounding information today, most of which have been heightened by this year’s election. More work is needed to develop this thinking-in-progress further.
In the past twenty years or so, we have seen an information explosion the effects of which are all too familiar these days. That so much information is everywhere all the time is practically a fact of life. But lately there has been a shift in our all-too-cozy relationship with information. We have grown too used to a bounty that’s too big for our own appetites, but free-flowing and effortless to consume nonetheless. We haven’t had to confront the dark side of information and really think about it quite as we do now, after a presidential race characterized by fake news, disinformation, sensationalism, logical fallacies, and emotionally-charged rhetoric. We’ve coined terms to describe this period of information’s decline, like post-truth, post-fact, and we can now refer to the “truthiness” of ideas we feel to be true, but lack evidence. Of course, our current information woes were only amplified this election season; they’ve been with us for a while, simmering below the surface of our daily info-logistical dance of sharing, liking, commenting, saving for later, and endless staring into the info-abyss we’ve created.
The state of affairs today is a far cry from the cheerily optimistic “information superhighway” and “knowledge economy” dreams of the early web. We’re in the midst of an information implosion. We struggle not just to sort through the noise in our mental environment, but to curb our own bad habits and outright addiction to tech-enabled gratification. We’ve come to distrust “the media” and the presumed interests they serve, but we have trouble seeking out “the truth” for ourselves (that is, if we even bother to go looking for it). Information itself can be molded, shaped, manufactured, and disguised as one (individual or entity) sees fit, and it’s getting harder for us to tell what’s real. The design of information frequently falls victim to misuse and abuse, with misleading representations, visual gimmickry, and inaccurate or incomplete source material — and it should hopefully be clear by now that bad information design has always been a problem everywhere, not just in voting booths and news sites. (For brevity and focus, this post doesn’t go into issues of censorship and blocked access to information.)
Our problems are no longer just about information access and administration — we’re facing difficult questions about information and ethics, literacy (visual literacy, numeracy, graphicacy), mental well-being, physical health, economic sustainability, political discourse, social change, education, and many other facets of society and life.
The dynamics of information production, delivery, and consumption are enormously complex, but beneath the surface, basic motivations and drives are at play. The information narrative has veered sharply away from the idealistic pursuit of knowledge and human advancement — it’s now a soap opera about the intensifying pursuit of profit, attention, and instant gratification among the different actors in the information ecosystem.
The Creators & Publishers
News organizations, magazines, and others who produce information for a large public audience have a balancing act on their hands. On one hand, there’s the motivation to attract eyeballs, ad clicks, and subscriptions in order to generate revenue — and data. On the other is the job of producing timely, relevant content worth people’s attention. When the money-making urge disrupts the balance, information quality suffers, and more energy goes toward grabby headlines, lightweight or thinly-researched articles, disruptive ads, and lurid clickbait that snare attention at any cost (anybody else fed up with “sponsored content” from Taboola and Outbrain?).
Easier said than done, but more rigor, transparency, and honesty in content creation would go a long way to clean up the information landscape. Setting standards and criteria for creators and publishers to produce high-quality content (that people would gladly pay for), and sticking to them, doesn’t necessarily mean content policing. It means defining values that translate to practices that best serve readers and sustain business, without the overpowering influence of advertising.
Google, Facebook, and other tech companies who provide access to information via search or platforms are wielding more and more control over the information landscape. “Gatekeepers” wouldn’t be too far off the mark. When data and algorithms determine who sees what and when, and when popularity becomes the default measure of information’s value, finding what you’re looking for becomes a much harder task; instead, you get all the things you’re not looking for. And when the flow of traffic is engineered — by strategically designed and placed advertising — towards information that is heavily skewed towards selling something, it’s obvious that getting you your information is a distributor’s secondary goal. The real goal is to put as many distractions and diversions between you and your desired information as possible to accumulate clicks and data to feed successive waves of advertising.
A push for standards and accountability, as with creators and publishers, would bring welcome change to the commercially-driven enterprise of information distribution, but the bigger challenge is how to make rules for tech giants whose sheer size and pervasiveness almost defy outside governance. Reframing the distributors’ business model of information commoditization, quantification, and optimization into one centered on quality, choice, and user empowerment seems almost impossible today, but without a radical change that realigns both sides of the equation — information seekers and information givers, for lack of a better term — we will only see power shift to the gatekeepers at an accelerated pace, and with it a higher price of access (time, personal information, and money). At that rate, online information will probably need corporate sponsorship if it is to be found at all.
Designers of many stripes give structure, form, and meaning to information, yet the skill and expertise they bring to bear on information design challenges and the products they create vary widely. Some designers engage in the process of information design, wrestling with information until they find the best way to organize and present it to an audience. Other designers only apply graphic design to information and make no effort to understand or even question the actual material they’re designing. (There are, of course, many designers who are pressured by their boss or client to do unethical things like skew data or obscure important information and are too afraid to risk losing their job or project by challenging them. Industry awareness and support is needed to help designers appropriately handle these situations.)
Designers need to strengthen their information design skills, if they’re not professional information designers already. That means caring about what information says, not just how it looks, through diligent research, collaboration with real subject matter experts, rigorous analysis of facts and data, and thoughtful synthesis that brings new clarity and understanding to a subject or issue. Telling a story or delivering a message first requires having a story or message, then finding the most effective way to get it across, without distorting the truth or advancing a particular agenda.
With the problem of information access solved long ago through vast networking infrastructure and wifi, we have no trouble at all getting it anywhere and anytime we want. What we haven’t yet solved are the problems of managing our relationship with information, which have reached a breaking point:
- We don’t want to work too hard or think too much. We want quick answers to all our questions, and our information seeking behaviors follow suit: just Google it. Surely the answer is somewhere on page one of the search results. The act of reading itself has been reduced to skimming and scanning for the lowest cognitive load. Juicy headlines, compact bullet points, and reductive graphics get read, while longform pieces (i.e., anything with actual paragraphs strung together) gets ignored or saved for a “later” that never comes.
- We’re easily distracted. All it takes is a buzz, ding, or glow to instantly steal us away from a moment of unplugged concentration on a task or a conversation with a live person. Did you get this far in the post without looking at your phone?
- We don’t know when enough is enough. Morning, noon, and night, information is always there for us, so long as there’s a device within reach. There’s no such thing as free time any more either, when we can easily occupy ourselves with news, status updates, and cat pictures, or all three. Sadly, we still haven’t learned to keep our hands off our smartphones while driving.
- We stick to what we know and fiercely defend it. Our circles of friends and people we follow feed us with information that reaffirms our view of the world, and we reward it with effortless social approval (via likes and favorites). Don’t like or disagree? Just un-follow. The flip side of bubble-building is that we freely express knee-jerk outrage at views that oppose our own, often more viciously than in a face-to-face encounter. Comments sections invite the best and worst of us; regardless of the forum, discussions routinely degenerate into arguments and outright flame wars, drown out any constructive contributions or voices of reason.
- We trust what appears trustworthy to us. We have little time or mental energy to verify everything we read, so we place great trust in our sources and the way they deliver information. Social approval and search algorithms only boost information’s value and credibility, regardless of its substance. When viewed through the same channel, like Facebook or a Twitter stream, information starts looking the same, which makes it hard to separate fact from fiction. Additionally, charts and graphs have historically had a convincingness to them, a fact which many take advantage of to create Trojan horse-style graphics that advance dubious agendas while bearing inaccuracies and distortions.
Our best chance for dealing with these problems — and hardest to do — is to introduce more focus and discipline to our information behaviors, by setting boundaries around our time and attention when it comes to consuming information. We don’t have to be online all the time in fear of missing out, and we don’t have to fall down the rabbit hole of web surfing that turns minutes into hours. We can also do a better job of cultivating a more discerning palate when it comes to our information diet; we should be enriching our lives with more meaningful, useful, and constructive information, and far less on silly amusements (take your pick). We should demand more from our news agencies and other information creators and publishers to cut away the fluff and actually inform us about health, law, government, finance, business, the environment, and other topics that have considerable bearing on our lives and our world.
Getting Smarter and Wiser About Information
Fixing our info-mess comes down to one word: responsibility. Each stakeholder in this story has given up some degree of responsibility for their actions in exchange for a perceived gain or benefit, more egregiously in some cases than others. Swinging the pendulum back to the values, principles, and core aspirations that launched the World Wide Web (and earlier still, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and Classical Athens), may help refocus priorities in today’s social, cultural, intellectual, and political environment. The dizzying and unabated rise of commercialization corrupted our experience of information. What we sorely need is a counteracting force to minimize its influence and reaffirm all the things that improve and strengthen humanity: a love of learning, sound reasoning and critical thinking, tolerance and inclusion, open and respectful discourse, and a sense of connectedness to everything around us.
Information is a reflection of ourselves, our beliefs, and our times. It is the stepping stone towards knowledge and, ultimately, wisdom. As a new year draws nearer, how can we find ways to actively elevate information and reverse the dysfunction surrounding it? Specifically, how can we reintroduce respect into the information conversation: respect for the creation of information, for the design of information, for the dissemination of information, and above all, for the people who rely on so many interdependent actors in the information ecosystem to help them find, understand, and use information?
Boy are we in sync. I’m just getting to this now and am amazed (although, perhaps not *that* amazed) by how much overlap there is with this piece and the letter I sent out a couple of days ago (http://chrbutler.com/facebook-isnt-necessary).
I focused in on Facebook, but I think we’re focused on the same “seismic” activity overall. In fact, the language we’re both using is absolutely in thematic lock-step. “Responsibility,” for one. Whose responsible for the truth of information? We both agree that the consumer has great responsibility — and, as seductive and pernicious as fake news may be right now, it’s not exactly convincing if an individual has some core info-vetting skills — but so do the platforms. They’re built to gather and interpret information in a certain way. And so those that design them have a responsibility to the consumer to do that in the least manipulative way possible. BUT, that’s where advertising comes in. As you point out — and so do I — advertising is the block. As long as information has commercial value, but not *direct* commercial value, then it will always tend toward compromises to the truth. That is a sad, but I believe, necessary conclusion.
Great stuff, and though it was a grim read, it brought a smile to my face . Each sentence made me feel as if both our pieces were the debrief of a conversation we never had 😉
The similarities are definitely not surprising — could we be trapped in an info bubble?
My far-flung hope is that broader realization of what’s behind the “seismic” activity — the interdependencies, the motivations, and the machinery — and the real consequences will fuel change that gradually leads to a better, healthier information ecosystem. Your latest newsletter digs into one of the most glaring problems with the commercialization of information and attention, and rightly so. Seeing Facebook and other attention-capture platforms for what they are and making smarter decisions as consumers about our relationship to them is one immediate way to counteract the dysfunction. But given the enormously tangled complexity of the mess we’re in today, we’ll need to make a profound large-scale investment in restoring the value of “understanding,” “responsibility,” “truth,” and “respect” before we approach anything resembling change. This certainly qualifies as a wicked problem: How can we agree on and enact policies, professional standards, and fundamental value systems that promote and protect information responsibility?
It’s a dismal state of affairs right now, but I’m not sure we’re doomed to a dystopian Black Mirror future just yet!