Opinion

Does More Information Make Us Dumber? Media and the Public Consciousness

Does More Information Make Us Dumber? Media and the Public Consciousness

We all know that media is everywhere. We say it to each other on an almost daily basis. We get “news” on our televisions, on our car radios, our computers, our smart phones, our tablets, in our email (thank you Voice of San Diego), and even through outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Just recently I read online that a hot air balloon “crashed” a San Diego wedding; Filner and Bustamante are working on border wait times (thanks, again, Voice of San Diego); and that there are new water quality concerns in San Diego County.

On one hand, we love being able to find out a lot of information about a lot of topics. And, the truth is, I do feel better informed about my community and about the world today than I used to. That is part of the allure of it all. There are so many ways to find out about so many things, so quickly — here in San Diego, and around the entire world — that it is a wonder that any story slips past us at all. We get everything, it seems.

But perhaps we are missing something. Or more insidiously, maybe the story we really need to see is out there — on multiple platforms, and in several places — and we just haven’t noticed. Amid the clamor of stories competing for our attention, how can we be at all confident that the right ones, the ones that really matter for us, are the ones we will come to notice?

Certainly this is not an entirely new problem. The issue of minority positions and minority “voices” going unheard or unheeded has a long history.

Still, things have also changed.

Fifty years ago, when Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” she wasn’t the first, or even the second person to raise the alarm about the dangers of indiscriminate use of pesticides. She was, however, famous. As the best-selling author of two previous books (about sea life), she had a high media profile. When she took on big chemical business — it was a story. The media — all of the media — ran with it, and the public noticed.

There were newspaper and magazine articles written, television interviews were conducted and radio broadcasts covered the story. And this led to congressional hearings, a ban on DDT, and the dawn of the modern environmental movement. In short, it was an important story, told by an important (and highly competent) scientist/writer, and the world was profoundly changed by it.

But is that still possible today? Can a book make that kind of impact anymore? Can any platform today deliver the kind of punch that “Silent Spring” did 50 years ago? With so much more information competing across so many more platforms, for so many more hours each day, and in so many more places around the world — can one story matter enough — or long enough — to matter as much as a book like “Silent Spring”?

On the one hand, there are too many variables to be able to answer such a question. It is more than just the simpler media landscape that led to the book’s ability to catch fire 50 years ago. Carson was a woman scientist, when women were sorely underrepresented, but also at the cusp of the modern feminist movement. We had just ended the 1950s, in which faith in science and the scientist as a figure of authority had been at a peak, and at the beginning of the 1960s during which “question authority” was a kind of generational mantra. Just as we know of Nixon’s painful inability to use modern media effectively in his race with Kennedy, large chemical corporations attempted to utilize the relatively young medium of television with disastrous effects. She was immediately perceived as both victim and hero — and the media coverage of her and the book skyrocketed.

On the other hand though, we may still learn from the book — both its message and its context. Perhaps there is a social lesson to be learned from Carson’s scientific position on pesticide use. She was not — as she was/is often assumed to have been, opposed outright to the use of pesticides. She claimed that their effects needed to be studied carefully and they needed to be deployed sparingly. In our media age, in which information is deployed ubiquitously and quality or reliability is sometimes lost in the pursuit of quantity — perhaps Carson’s position is relevant. It may be that we need to step back and reconsider our complete faith in the notion that more information, more quickly, and more pervasively is always the best course.

Maybe more media is not better information. And maybe the message that will one day catch fire and change our world will be about this very topic — and in the old, outdated and cumbersome form of a book.

Or perhaps not.

Maybe the modern media’s power to change the world as “Silent Spring” did, is evident in the power of Facebook and Twitter to help facilitate the Arab Spring. Or, it may be in the power of social media to raise awareness — and funds — about natural disasters and for their relief efforts. It could be that, just as in the case of Carson’s moment, the medium is not the only message. We must have the right confluence of historical trends come together in the right work — from the right person (or people) — and that is what makes any idea — no matter how many others may come before (or even along side) it — rise above the rim of our collective consciousness and sink in.

On Feb. 6, Jill Witkowski and James Nieh will be speaking about Carson and her legacy here in San Diego at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center as part of a free, “Exploring Ethics” series. This event is co-hosted by the University of San Diego and the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. To learn more about this topic and to participate in a dialogue about the issues raised by this work, RSVP here.

Tate Hurvitz is a project director for the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and an associate professor at Grossmont College, where he teaches English and co-coordinates the Freshman Academy, designed to promote interdisciplinary learning.


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