Lost in the ‘information overload'

Sunday May 6, 2012


Information overload is swamping us as new media compete with legacy media such as newspapers, network and local TV and over-the-air radio.

The result is that folks whose attention is diverted in many different directions know less about almost everything but feel free to spout opinions based on gossip and supposition.

As the popular saying goes, you're entitled to your own opinions but not to your own "facts."

Those who claim that climate change is either a myth or, if it exists, is not caused by humans are spouting ideology, not settled science.

While it's true that some scientists -- in fields other than climatology -- are climate-change deniers, remember that back in the 1980s, there were scentists who disputed the fact that cigarette smoke -- first- and second-hand -- is a major cause of lung cancer.

Misinformation is not the only curse of our 24-7 on-line, all-the-time culture. It's the lack of basic knowledge that is equally troubling.

A couple of minor and major examples: Several smart folks told me recently they were totally unaware of the Berkshire Cycling Classic, a major event today on the international circuit of competitive riding. Despite a series of articles in The Eagle and coverage in other media, this most-worthy addition to the county's recreational and tourism scene has escaped many people's radar.

Even more surprising: An otherwise well-informed resident who has lived in the county for a few years confessed he had never heard of the Josh Billings RunAground, the annual September triathlon now in the planning stages for its 36th year with a goal of 500 teams.
I run into folks who have never heard of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful from Massachusetts, and who can't identify U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, the Amherst Democrat who has ably represented the Berkshires and beyond since 1991. Nor do they know (or care, apparently) about redistricting and the three-way race to succeed him.

It may seem too easy to blame obsession with social and interactive electronic media for the spread of ignorance. But it's undeniable that these innovations -- valuable as they are in some respects -- contribute not only to a breakdown of vital knowledge but also to a coarsening and cheapening of our social discourse.

It was shocking this past week to learn about the cyber-harassment of Meredith Nilan and her family as a resolution of the hit-and-run case against her is awaited. It was even more horrifying to find out that explicit threats of harm had been made by an anonymous coward via the old-media land-line telephone.

But bullying and harassment by weasels who don't dare identify themselves are the new normal, especially in the online "comments" that are allowed by many web sites because of "community engagement," the Holy Grail of media moguls these days.

Those comments -- all too often vile, abusive and reprehensible -- would never be printed in a responsible newspaper or a magazine. Why the double standard?

The atmosphere out there is too often poisonous, so it was refreshing to attend and cover the (mostly) harmonious town meeting in Lenox last Thursday as well as Saturday's civil, friendly annual gathering in Monterey, where folks were respectful of their neighbors even when disagreeing.

At the risk of appearing hopelessly naive, I have to believe that corners may be turned and that a return to the roots of our best participatory-democracy traditions here in New England might be possible. But I fear that I may be whistling in the wind.

Clarence Fanto is an Eagle staffer.


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