Infomania and Its Side-Effects
By Gene Sager
I recently incited a techno battle at the kitchen table – a duel between my son, armed with his Android phone and his friend, who was packing an iPhone. I unwittingly provoked the duel by asking what I thought was a simple question: “Is the General Sherman tree the biggest tree in the world?” I was curious because we are planning a trip through the Sequoia National Park. My son sprang into action, typing my question into his Android; this prompted his friend to speak the question into his iPhone, claiming this would retrieve the information faster. All of us inched forward in our chairs: me and my wife, my son, his friend, and his friend’s eight-year-old sister.
The competition was on and we took sides, counting on our techno warrior to deliver the information faster than his opponent. The results came in almost simultaneously, but controversy exploded over whether the issue was “big by volume” or “big by height.” One phone diverted our attention to the Hyperion coast redwood, the tallest living tree at 379 feet tall – taller than a football field is long. Good to know. My wife shouted out the “real” question: “What is the biggest living thing?” Then came animated claims about blue whales, rainforests, and mushrooms. My son found a link to BBC reports about a humongous honey fungus growing in the Blue Mountains in Oregon. The website included seventy-eight reviews about visits to see the giant fungus. The postings ranged from “This mushroom has been on my bucket list for ten years!” to the old line about the “fungus amungus.”
In a split decision, my son’s Android was declared the winner, and the envious eight-year-old praised my son’s “disposable” typing thumbs. A fun and educational time was had by all. I was happy to see playful bonding dealing with my favorite topics of Nature and the west coast environment.
The dueling flew by in an hour – a happy hour of raucous fun. But later that day when things quieted down, I realized there was something odd about the happy hour. It was about speed, the speed of the gadgets. It was all about the gadgets and their vast store of information. Was it the tail wagging the dog? Perhaps we were being jerked about by, or under the influence of, something called “infomania” – being obsessed with information technology.
Social media are included under the term “information technology” and we do acquire information about others through networks like Facebook. Facebook does help family and friends bond, but the word “friends” is stretched out of shape to include virtual strangers whom we have met once or who are related as second cousins twice removed. The content of the messages is often quirky, and the standing joke is that Instagram pics typically show “What I had for breakfast.” But the most telling symptom of this form of infomania is that it is demanding. As a Facebooker, you feel you need to check your page often. When you don’t check it, you can miss invitations, or you annoy the person who expected an immediate response to the pic and message they sent you in great excitement.
When the demands of infomania are multiplied, the result is a state of constant stress and preoccupation. The day is filled with Facebooking, Twitter, Google searches, blogs, etc. Together they become weapons of mass distraction. So attention deficit disorder is not suffered by just some elementary school children; it is suffered by children of infomania – children of all ages.
Some aspects of infomania are not so frenetic or demanding. They are stored, sometimes dressed up, bodies of information on every topic under the sun. There is even a Luddite website, although the Luddites are an anti-mechanization, anti-technology organization. Today, scholars and experts on various subjects complain that the internet abounds with misinformation. There are veiled ads masquerading as “breakthrough knowledge.” Google puts a square with the letters “AD” by results that are paid for ads, but it is the veiled ads that plague us. There are also horribly biased mixtures of facts and opinions. However, misinformation has always been published at home and abroad, has it not? In past ages, we have had access to misinformation and we have suffered the consequences. Now, in the age of infomania, access is much quicker and much easier. We can be misinformed very quickly and very easily.
Not all of the information is false or misleading. There are other issues about quantity and quality. Among acronyms, TMI (too much information) fits the infomaniacal culture quite well, and so does RTI (random and trivial information). Information is presented regardless of its importance and often because of its entertainment value. Celebrity news is in this category along with “gee whiz” information, as when the nightly news reports that the mayor’s daughter swallowed a spoon. Sometimes, I observe smartphone users looking up a fact just out of idle curiosity. The eight-year-old participant in the happy hour of dueling now has her own phone and uses it as a toy for idle amusement. I told her she has early onset infomania, but she told her parents I said that she has “ninfomania.” She doesn’t visit us anymore.
In this age of infomania, people who can store amazing amounts of information in their brains are greatly admired. A “smart person” can give you the names of the four main islands of Japan, the term used for currency in Morocco, and the given name of Mark Twain. This is the smartphone model of smarts or intelligence and it reigns supreme in infomaniacal cultures. But we need to remember that good judgement in making life decisions depends on the exercise of wisdom, not on smartphone information storage. If Apple actually produces a wise phone, I would stand in the line all night for the first sales on release day.
One astute American writer warned us a century ago about the vulnerability of the mind: “I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things…” (Henry Thoreau, Life Without Principle). I suspect that smartphone use pre-empts the exercise and development of thinking skills. Today, journalists indeed report a steady decline in “cognitive aptitude” among high school students in the United States. Their analytic writing skills and critical thinking skills are sorely lacking, as is discussed in the LA Times, September 10, 2015. Could it be that use of information technology is subtly or not so subtly crippling the minds of our young people, so that as smartphones get smarter and smarter, people get dumber and dumber?
Despite all this, I have faith in the ability of the dog (you and me) to regain control of its tail (information technology). When we realize that we have been jerked about by the technology, we take a step towards a solution. So, I say, with the corny pop tune, we need to be “looking at the dog in the mirror.”
Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.