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Technoutopia: The rise of contextless information

Posted by Alex Warren on 13th August 2013

Over the last ten years the world has witnessed an information explosion. With over four billion websites already in existence and fifty million more being created every year, the internet has grown into an overwhelming mass of facts, half-truths and hilarious cat pictures.

This infinity of unrestricted information has commonly been triumphed as an educational opportunity, a source of growing consumer power, and even the foundations of a greater democratic society.

Still, we must be cautious of such bold claims. As technology becomes increasingly ingrained within the fabric of our lives it is easy to be blinded by technoutopianism. We must be careful to remember that information and knowledge are two very different things. Just because we have greater access to information does not necessarily imply an improvement in understanding. In fact, as the online environment grows ever more cluttered, the depth of our knowledge becomes significantly diminished.

In attempting to cope with this torrent of online information, many of us have turned to content aggregation systems such as Twitter or Pulse. While such solutions are highly effective, they still represent a growing shift towards reductionism. In the majority of cases such sites provide an extremely useful digest of the facts but succeed in losing much of the information’s original context.

This diminishment of context is nothing new to the world of technology. Even the introduction of the telegraph brought with it the fear that such fast-paced and unrelated factoids would succeed in destroying historical continuity and coherent understanding. As the cultural critic Neil Postman once wrote: “to the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing lots of things, not knowing about them”. It is this bite-sized knowledge that we are increasingly faced with in the world of scrolling tweets and ticker tape RSS feeds. In the age of Twitter, slow-burning concepts such as research and reflection simply can’t keep up.

Without this understanding of context, information becomes meaningless. This leaves opinions and ideas void of examination, with concepts such as motivation, authorship and bias becoming less and less relevant to the increasingly anonymous online world.

As one recent example, consider content aggregation services such as Feedly. By presenting multiple sources within one standardised application, Feedly removes virtually all informational context, blurring the lines between professional journalism and amateur opinions.

But so what? Who actually cares if information is presented without context? Well, in all honesty, not enough people. As the technology community grows increasingly utopian, it’s important to take the occasional step back and consider that all progress is a matter of give and take. Just because information is free, doesn’t make knowledge any less priceless.

Alex Warren

Alex Warren is an expert in AI and marketing technologies. He has published two books, Spin Machines, and Technoutopia and is regularly quoted in PR, marketing and technology media. In his role as a Senior Account Director at Wildfire he helps tech brands build creative strategies that deliver results and cut through the marketing BS.