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You Versus the Information Age
By Alvin Soon - on 13 May 2010, 5:19pm

The advent of the personal computer and the internet heralded the coming of the Information Age. What we needed to know we didn't have to wait anymore until the evening news, tomorrow's paper, a month's magazine, a visit to the reference library. Information was going to be all at our fingertips.

And it has been good. Wikipedia gives everyone in the world with an internet connection access to the largest encyclopaedia ever written. Blogs give a voice to people who might never have had one before, connecting it with people who might never had a chance to listen otherwise. Online news let us know what we need to know, when we need to know it. Everything you want to know is at your fingertips and the click of a search engine away – it is an unparalleled power given to no other generation in the history of the human race.

But nothing is ever free, not even information. At the same time it gives, it takes away, if not your money, then your time and attention. And if we're constantly deluged by morsels of information without the time to digest them, then we've bought knowledge at the price of wisdom, sound-bites for story. The internet is full of fact and opinion, switch on a feed and you'll find no shortage of either.

But what about meaning? A fact says what is. Story says what is, what was and what may be. A fact is short. A story is long. In the age of instant facts and quick hits when we're constantly refreshing for the next little morsel of information, we leave out the larger story. With freedom of speech and the power to broadcast worldwide, we forget that not every voice favours fact-checking and accuracy over a moment of internet fame and attention, and what gets attention may deride what actually means something.

Facts are fast. Stories take longer. You and I, we need time to write, read and think to see the forest for the trees. That doesn't happen in an environment of sound-bites, quick little hits of information fuelling the need for more quick little hits. How many of us today will be content to whittle down the amount of quick information that make us think we know, while confining us to the level – at best – of an advanced beginner, and take the more difficult route to go narrow and deep? To really understand something, enough to form a unique voice and remarkable insight? To submit that a 5-second reaction may not equal a 5-day repose? To admit that we may be contributing more noise than signal to other people's lives? That we may not just be addicts, but pushers?

You've felt it, I've felt it. How being constantly distracted by a quick look at Facebook, Twitter, the RSS feed, email, YouTube, has left us unable to concentrate and find flow in a work. How that incessant need to get one more hit from our internet world has us looking at an LCD screen all day instead of what's really happening around us, even while walking, standing, waiting, eating, talking. We have let these little distractions of seemingly-important information morsels rob us of moments of our life, of the chances to form a story to snack on bits of fact and opinion. We know more and understand less.

The information stream was not made to help you create meaning. It was designed to feed you knowledge and have you coming back for more. You have to be your own curator, gatekeeper, editor, sifting for relevancy in a stream of bits. And if you don't find the silent spaces to do that, the stream will fill those spaces with pebbles for you.

Switch off that Twitter feed and call a friend. Turn off the TV and read a book. Switch off your internet connection and be silent for an afternoon. Not to be a Luddite, but to understand that the always-on life is not always good, the lo-fi life is not always low, and just because we can have an abundance of a good thing doesn't mean we can't have a glut of it.

We though the Information Age was going to make us smarter. It hasn't. It's only made us better informed. There's a difference, not in terms of positivity, simply degrees of effect. Information without thought is just regurgitation. We've solved the information problem today for most developed countries. Maybe it's time for us to push on to solve the problem of story, meaning and relevancy.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.