Xi = ?

This is not a post about statistics or physics.  It’s not a post about BMW cars either.

For the Xi = ? equation, lets label the variables like this:- i=information sources and x=quantity, so Xi is the total number of information sources.  What the right side of the equation is, is what I’ll explore, and it’s a little bit of everything today, some economics, some communication theory, and culture–this is my way of trying to make sense of some of the concepts in the class discussion yesterday, and also an elaboration on a blog comment I wrote a few days ago.

So what happens as X increases, in other words as the number of information sources increases?

:: Xi=Ignorant or Informed? ::

In a class discussion yesterday there was talk of the agenda-setting function, and I heard a statement, “the power of the media doesn’t tell us what to think, but what to think about”.   Well as I see it since there are now more sources of media, I suspect that while people might dip into more sources of information, the diversity of the content is actually reducing.  For example let’s say someone considers themselves a conservative in the USA.  There are only so many sources of information they can absorb, with a limited amount to do so.  Whereas in the past, they’d have the Washington Post and read all of it’s op-eds, and then watch the CBS news at 6:00 pm, now they are watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh, participating in ‘vigorous, challenging debates’ on ‘freetherpublic’ and reading Erik Eriksson atRedState–X is increasing.   Or whereas before one would read People magazine and be done with their gossip quota, now they’re reading People magazine, watching the Kardashians on E!, and following Kim on facebook (and Twitter too of course). As your increasing the sources of information you draw from within the same interest/area, you reduce the amount of time and energy you have to expose yourself to other types of information.

There’s the very real possibility that people are getting dumbed down rather than enlightened—and by dumbed down I mean virtually completely ignorant of any issues outside of their pet interest or two.   Yes there’s instant and plenty of information out there, but I suspect the “instant and plenty” of information that people are seeking is information that confirms their preexisting views.  In a sense information becomes not about ‘getting informed’ but about representing existing beliefs, communication becomes what the late Social Scientist James Carey would characterize as a ‘ritual view of communication’.

:: Xi=Unifying or Dividing? ::

I have some friends on Facebook who live in Washington DC, but 90% of their feeds are in foreign languages.  It’s all in Thai or it’s all in Swahili, etc.   What this indicates is that people are not really actively diversifying or expanding their social circles.  I see a lot of discussion of, talk of, and pride in their home countries (nothing wrong with that).  Is this caused perhaps by social media allowing diaspora to communicate more frequently with others about events ‘back home’? My anecdotal observation is that this can slow acculturation and that it can cause people to hide from the dominant culture in which they reside.  Seriously some of my friends, it would be impossible to know that they live in Dallas, as opposed to Dakar.  Some of my friends 90% of the music videos they watch and/or post on facebook are of artists from their home country.  Now surely it is not a revelation that people situated in foreign cultures will instinctively seek the familiar, after all when people immigrated to the USA, there used to be little Italies, little Chinas, etc.  However, shouldn’t availability of more information about different people, cultures, etc. have a unifying effect?  The temptation is to assume that it would obviously be so, but I think it also can just as likely have the opposite effect.

(This also shows,  as  Dayan Thussu argues, that information flows are rarely one-way only but that is another post on it’s own.)

:: Xi=Cheap or Expensive? ::

Over at Hayden’s HeroesJohn Jeff argues that information is almost virtually free.   In a comment to Jeff, I question whether information really is virtually free (though he is absolutely correct to say it is easily and readily available).  In a capitalistic society, yes competition and efficiency should bring prices down.  However, if there is also a trend towards deregulation, then there is the danger of monopolies, and other aggressive and relatively unchecked profit-seeking behavior (again this is not stated as a value judgement).  This is seen in the USA where in 1980, to get the world news, one paid a bill to the cable company.  In 2010, in the USA it is not atypical to find that someone is paying a cable bill, a data bill for your smartphone, a high-speed internet bill for your computer, and a data bill for your tablet. So while the number of sources is undoubtedly increasing, it is possible that the economic costs are increasing too.

So thats it!  There is no empirical research done here, this is just my general sense of where things stand.  Availability of more more more and yet more available information or communication methods is often assumed to result a smarter more unified population enjoying cheap information and communicating cheaply.  This is a form of technological  determinism, which is not very convincing.


This post is crossposted on a student blog at which I am a contributor.


For history buffs, policy wonks, and sci-fi geeks

Early in her book Information Revolution and World Politics Elizabeth Hanson, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, gives an interesting account on the origins of the information revolution.   She argues that the information revolution has been going on since the printed press.  In addition to talking about the printed press she focuses on the development and changes brought by television, telegraph, radio and the telephone.  Her description of the early days of the information revolution had my imagination travelling thousands of years into the past, and wondering what thousands of years into the future would be like.

If you read Hanson’s account of the various technologies, and then also consider the introduction of ‘writing’ itself as a logical marker to precede the printed press, you can see that successful technologies are reaching a level of high acceptance and usage at increasingly faster rates following their introduction.  The space between introduction of significant information and communication technologies is also reducing.  See ‘writing’ was started about 4-6000 BC, then the printed press in the 17th century, then came the telephone/telegraph in the 19th century, television in the mid-20th century, etc.  Then if you look at the internet today, it is still very young–just roughly 15 years old in it’s current form, yet look how far reaching it is already!

This raises an interesting question of what happens when this trend is projected into the future.  Hanson says that once realities created by technologies are in operation, new technologies emerge in turn to overcome existing limitations.  Furthermore, Paul Zane Pilzner, an economist who has served as an Advisor in two administrations, has argued that advances in technology are determined by the speed in which information is exchanged.   If information is getting shared at increasingly faster rates, and technologies are having increasingly more immediate impacts, theoretically one should reach a point of infinite technology achievement and yet how is that physically possible?

I’m somewhat of a sci-fi type,  so for me this makes for a fascinating exploration of concepts such as Moores Law  and the Technological Singularity.  Basically, Moores Law predicts regular doubling of the capacity circuit based technology over predictable timespans, whereas the idea of a Technological Singularity, refers to hypothetical future time that is hard to predict because technological advancements happen instantly, creating some sort of superintelligence–I mean delightfuly geek territory here.

Now if that’s not your thing, there is a more practical policy side to this.  If technologies are getting more frequent, and information sharing is increasing exponentially, then there is the likelihood that laws and regulations will lag behind.  This is something I thought about as Hanson mentioned that the telephone was hampered in Europe by “government policies and political obstacles to cooperation across boundaries”. So far, at least the period through Hanson’s account, there has been time for adaptation and development of norms.  But will that always be the true if instead of significant information and communication technologies being introduced every couple of hundred, or even every fifty or so years, they are being introduced every couple of years?   It will be interesting to see what happens over our lifetimes, and how governments and international organizations evolve as a result.

[Crossposted at a shared-student blog at which I am a contributor.]