America obsessed with 'TMI'
I think that any member of our digitalized postmodern society would agree that the amount of information of all kinds available to us today is simply staggering, particularly when compared to previous historical periods. It has been estimated that "a weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England." At first, this claim seems a bit difficult to accept, but the moment we stop to truly appreciate the tremendous amount of information we encounter each day it becomes all too believable. To be sure, from our perspective in the early 21st century, the information in a single weekday edition of the New York Times is but a drop in the bucket. Information now comes to us through media as diverse as commercial text messages, printed T-shirts, product packaging, customized email alerts, textbooks, flyers and the Facebook news feed. Given the vast and continually increasing complexity of the information landscape we are made to contend with, it seems amazing that we are able to navigate it at all. Indeed, the store of information currently available to us is so vast the Web-based retrieval and categorization of data as diverse as encyclopedia articles, phone book listings, maps, restaurant reviews, TV news segments and movie show times has become a multibillion-dollar industry.
In 2002, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, more than five exabytes (or five billion gigabytes) of new information were produced; this amounts to 800 megabytes for each person on the planet and is about 37,000 times as much information as exists in the entirety of the Library of Congress. Further, the amount of information we collectively produce has only increased during each subsequent year. I do not know how to begin working out the relevant math, but I would estimate that original content created by individual users on various digital platforms (for example, Tumblr, YouTube, Blogger, Yelp, Twitter) now contributes significantly to the total amount of information available. For the sake of argument, let's say that we now produce something on the order of nine or 10 exabytes each year. Certainly, many of these pieces of information are inaccurate and many of them contradict one another. But the empirical validity of a given piece of information has virtually no direct influence over its likelihood of being learned and believed by a given individual. In other words, a given piece of information is frequently copied from one location to another regardless of its merit.
One concept that is very illuminating at this point in our discussion is that of memetics, also known as meme theory. First posited by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene" and based upon the principle of universal Darwinism, memetics contends that cultures, much like biological organisms, evolve through the variation and selection of particular hereditary information. To elaborate: Just as the information which is copied from parent to offspring (the genes) varies and is subject to the process of natural selection over time, so does the information which is copied from individual to individual through imitation (the memes). In other words, both of these types of replicators are units in competition with others like themselves, selfishly "trying" to be copied as many times as possible with no regard for the consequences.
The process becomes even more complex when we take into account the occurrences of variation and selection of information, which take place entirely outside of human interaction; for example, those that take place purely within computer networks. Susan Blackmore, one of the world's preeminent meme theorists, has dubbed such pieces of information "temes," short for technological memes. We are now at an incredible point in history in which much of the new information that is produced through the Internet may never even be seen by human eyes. For a wonderful discussion of meme theory and its implications, I recommend viewing Blackmore's presentation on the subject available at TED.com.
For some, this particular scientific perspective paints a somewhat troubling picture of the role of human beings within the overloaded information landscape which we currently occupy, since — to some extent — it seems to reduce us to unconscious imitators or receptacles for information. Yet the explanation of culture and information laid out by memetics does much to explain how and why information is copied from person to person, particularly unreliable information. While it is true that some information is copied because it is good or true or useful, this is simply not the case for many of the memes out there trying to get copied. With this in mind, it becomes ever more imperative for us to evaluate all new information critically, as its ability to spread and replicate often has virtually nothing to do with its practical or empirical value.
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College junior majoring in sociology. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column, "Zeitgeist," runs on alternate Wednesdays. He is also a contributing writer for the Johnsonville Press. This article was previously published on the johnsonvillepress.com