HARTON: Escape your 'information cocoon'

April 10, 2010

Tom Harton CommentaryMy mom used to remind me that too much of anything—even a good thing—could have negative consequences. I don’t think she ever uttered the words “law of diminishing returns,” but that’s what she was talking about. Too much food makes you sick. Too much time in the sun makes you red and sore.

If there’s an exception to the rule, it’s that you can never have too much information—that’s the commonly accepted wisdom, at least. The information age is almost always spoken of in glowing terms. Information is empowering, so we’re told, even if it comes from a cave in the Middle East or a basement down the block or a corporate media machine that needs something—anything—to fill the gaps between the advertising on a 24-hour news channel.

But what if the information is slanted, or worse, just plain wrong?

And what if the overabundance of information you’re swimming in comes, all the time, from the same news organization, the same bloggers, the same friends forwarding e-mails of unknown origin that they know you’ll agree with?

I remember sitting in a windowless meeting room at a conference of newspaper editors sometime in the 1990s hearing a futurist tell us that, sometime in the not-too-distant future, consumers of news and entertainment would read, hear and see only that which they ordered sent to their televisions, computers and communications devices.

I found the concept alarming at the time.

Well, that future is here, and what I’ve feared ever since hearing the futurist is coming true. Americans are comfortably—sadly—wrapped up in individual information cocoons, a term recently used by New York Times columnist David Brooks in a discussion of the distorted views of partisans.

The political set, especially those whose paycheck depends on the success of their party, has always operated wearing blinders. But in this age of plentiful information—a condition that one might think would cause folks to consider many points of view—more and more people are wearing blinders.

People get the sound bites—or doomsday essays—they want, when they want them. Convenience is king. Discovery is dead.

When is the last time you happened upon some information that changed your mind or caused you to at least question a long-held belief?

Did you make up your mind about health care reform long before the final vote? If you’re certain it’s evil and will lead the country to ruin, can you at least articulate the arguments in favor of it without getting angry?

If you’re on the other side and think reform is just what the doctor ordered, can you dispassionately recite any of the negative consequences that opponents of reform raise as concerns? Can you concede that some of those concerns might be legitimate?

If not, you need to add some new information to your diet. Maybe you’re only getting the “us versus them” garbage churned out by politicians and their parties, which is then refined and made more vile by the true believers. If that’s the case, you need to take a deep breath and read something about the issue that isn’t dripping with sarcasm or laced with partisan zingers designed to discredit the “enemy.”

If you’re on the left and want to be entertained, watch Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, but don’t mistake what you hear for information. If you’re on the right, watch Glenn Beck, but don’t consider what he’s telling you as anything other than red meat intended to satisfy your conservative appetite.

Better yet, if you want to be entertained, watch “The Office,” or “Dancing with the Stars,” or whatever you consider a good escape. When you want information, read a newspaper that doesn’t have an agenda. Read a variety of them. And flip through all the pages—or scroll from the top of the screen to the bottom. You might learn something new.•


Harton is editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.


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