Managing information overload

Lest people think I am slightly mad I want to start with another word I found in the Chambers English dictionary, you will notice it also starts with ‘a’, so you can see I haven’t got very far as yet. The word is (perhaps in a rather Steven Fry QI voice) abibliophobia noun the fear or anxiety that one will run out of things to read. This set me thinking as I believe I am with the majority of academics whose fear is of even marginally keeping apace of the books, journal articles (a large part of my inbox used to be journal alerts for contents pages), reports, blogs (!) and perhaps twitter as well. Surely one of the core anxieties of our times is how we can navigate this sea of information, remain informed and not be bluffers who have only read the abstract. We are in danger of being locked into Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s Tyranny of the Moment (think of your average day of repeating the same tasks over and over again and being locked into this kind of activity and you have it – for most of us its email of course, with Eriksen noting that he would go home in order to do decent work – but perhaps even that was before webmail…). The reality is of course that most such information is incredibly ‘thin’ and refers to little of consequence, a good example of this being coverage of the stockmarkets. We can almost tune-in from one day to another and be confronted either with disaster or elation at the performance of the market. This isn’t simply a function of the current crisis, it is just as much about a move away from analysis and the educative role of the media to a point at which the media apparently reflect momentary interests and data, hence we don’t see graphs for the past week or year to set things in context, never mind a proper briefing on what it all means. The project of writers like John Lanchester (check his series of articles for the London Review of Books, Whoops! and How to Speak Money) has been precisely to cut through the froth of media attention and the emotion machine of the stockmarket and offer people deeper understandings of the way markets, governments and bankers work (and often don’t). The reason I raise this is because arguing about the value and need for longer loops of thinking in the academy belies the reality that so many of us are already the kind of twitching subjects of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism – plugged into headphones, phones, ipads, laptops and desktops – frantically trying to reduce the size of our inboxes or trying to boost our social media profile (ahem). This is corrosive stuff, the partial equivalent of the film The Matrix and a new reason to take critical theory seriously – we are being deeply affected by information overload, by immersion in momentary takes on social life and confronted by the ways in which big data and privately run social monitoring systems are challenging the voice and relevance of social research in the academy. There IS a kind of corporate, neoliberal, commodifying, dehumanising aspect to the way that universities and academics are being repositioned as quick voices and quicker thinkers. Say it isn’t so and then reflect on the daily pressures we all face. I hope to move on to words beginning with b soon.

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