Information Overload


Julia Dupire, 2016

The Post publishes an average of 1,200 stories a day.1 That is one newspaper out of the approximate 1,387 in circulation in the US today, not to mention the world.2 Wave after wave of information crash upon the individual. The question then becomes whether to drown in the midst of this abundance or whether to find a manner to navigate through it, concocting one’s own swim. Information, when deemed truthful, may be a lens of insight or a prospect of enlightenment onto the world. Yet how may one reach this outcome and discern truthful and pertinent information from the partial or inconsequential?

In Discourse on the Method (1637), Descartes wrote “cogito ego sum.”3 After having put an existential doubt upon the world, the French philosopher concluded that the only truth he could truly believe was the fact of his own existence, confirmed by his capacity to think: “I think therefore I am.” According to Descartes’s proposition, in order for information to be deemed true, it must be internalized by the “self.” This notion of navigating information overload and reaching wisdom through the self is evoked throughout history. It is proposed by Descartes, reviewed by Husserl, experimented with by Emerson and Thoreau as well as portrayed through Charles Bernstein’s conceptual writing. Reverting to a sense of self could thus be perceived as an outlet permitting a better personal understanding of oneself and knowledge about the world.

In Decartes’s Meditations on the First Philosophy I (1641) the author expressed an existential doubt and posited that one must apply skepticism to any belief in order to determine its legitimacy. Indeed, the profusion of information broadcasted throughout society can be thought of as dangerous today, as this information is often blindly accepted rather than actively assessed. One may not always truly be aware of whether or not the information he or she is exposed to is candid or a deceptive manipulation constructed by its authors. This thought remains even more pertinent today as the information propagated through media seeks to display specific images of powerful institutions and individuals. For instance, in the light of the recent United States presidential elections, a Stanford study wrote “of the known false news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favoring Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook.”4 The tremendous propagation of faulty information thus may have contributed to the unanticipated victory of President Trump. This depicts how the import of biased information and how it can be used to promote false images as to manipulate the mindset of a population.

Fearing this over-reliance on external sources, Descartes sought to “rid [himself] of all the opinions which [he] had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation, if [he] wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences.”5 By “ridding” himself of external sources of information, Descartes was left with his own sense of self in order to contemplate the world. When he wrote “I think therefore I am” he concluded that although he could not be sure of the existence of anything outside of himself, he knew the fact that he doubted to be true. The unique ability for an individual to think would thus be the mark of his or her consciousness.

All that one knows is ascertained through the internal deliberation of his or her existence. Understanding the world would thus only be possible after having understood the self. The notion of consciousness is closely intertwined with Descartes’ theory of existence as the human capacity to think, as it is derived from sensory and reflective awareness. Early twentieth-century German philosopher Edmond Husserl believed that all consciousness came from intentionally being aware of something. According to Husserl, being conscious of an external piece of information would be to internalize it within oneself. He asserted that “what is thematically posited is only what is given, by pure reflection, with all its immanent essential moments absolutely as it is given to pure reflection.”6 Husserl claimed that what may be deemed real must come from a place of personal contemplation in order to be understood as factual. Like Descartes’s skepticism, Husserl’s understanding of knowledge has implications for media literacy. If one derives knowledge from information without personal contemplation, one risks complete indoctrination by society. His works alludes to a fear that blindly accepting information as true would lead to a lack of personal contemplation and indoctrination by society. This fear bears with it a truth which has occurred numerous times throughout history, with Nazi propaganda for instance. In order to escape the prospect of being brainwashed, one must revert back to the self and a sense of reflection, which permits the elaboration of a unique and individual perception of the world.

Early nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson sought truth by sequestering himself in nature, an environment untouched by the hand of society. In order to resist biased by the views and propagated images found in information overload, Emerson sequestered himself in a world of wilderness. This seclusion thus allowed him an escape from the abundance of information found in social contexts. It was up to Emerson to find his own source of knowledge. Descartes wrote “the two operations of our understanding, intuition and deduction, on which alone we have said we must rely in the acquisition of knowledge.” 7 Emerson saw his isolation as a means to become more in touch with these operations, thus making him a wiser man. He explained “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.”8  Reading and writing, being contemplative activities, engage the mind to wonder. As long as one is curious and seeks to learn about the world, the mind will be filled with deliberations, which allow the formation of a certain amount of knowledge. Wisdom would thus be something that comes from within, resulting from a process of contemplation. One is not wise because of an exposure to the fruits of knowledge, which are information. One is wise because of the internal understanding of information, which is done through an active consciousness. “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”9 Emerson clearly deliberated on a sense similar to that of Cartesian doubt. By saying that the world is “constantly trying to make you something else,” Emerson suggested that society indeed has the power to influence thoughts as to change the essence of individuals and indoctrinate their minds. This strong influence would thus divert people away from a sense of truth of the world. What is perceived as true is unique to each individual, which is why Descartes formulated that “the first precept was never to accept a thing as true until I knew it as such without a single doubt.” 10 The American Naturalist Philosopher Henry David Thoreau, throughout his work, notably elaborated on this notion of distinguishing what is innately true from biased information. Similarly to Emerson, he sought self-reflection through an internalized understanding of classical texts. Thoreau had an inherent fascination for knowledge as a whole, and this was especially portrayed through his advocacy of canonical texts. This will to learn was aligned with his great admiration for the Classics. He wrote, “for what are the Classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles, which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.”11 Indeed, according to Thoreau, the Classics, especially in the sphere of philosophy, explored realms of universal truth about the human condition, which remained pertinent throughout history. Classical literature, especially Greek philosophy, elicits the notion of Sophia, which Plato characterized as “genuine reflective wisdom.” 12

Rather than instating a thoughtless dogma, Classical philosophers call upon a deliberate questioning in the reader. The Classics were deemed great because they demand a questioning and logical reasoning, which may be rarely found in contemporary knowledge outputs. Reading Socrates thus would be more formative to a person’s conscious awareness than the burst of 6,000 tweets that are posted every second worldwide.13 The lack of analysis over contemporary news outputs, such as but not limited to social media platforms, leads to a mere acceptance of its content. According to Thoreau, reading classical works was a means to be wise in navigating information overload. Classical works call upon a contemplative exercise, inciting a process of reflection on its arguments as opposed to a passive belief in them. This theory complements Descartes, who wrote “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.”14 Information must hence be internalized through the self but may also rely on the deliberations of past thinkers in order to become knowledge and a source of wisdom.

Indeed, a need to revert back to the self as well as a solid understanding of classical literature may illuminate a path of wisdom to follow when facing information overload in order to avoid internalizing biased points of views. Contemporary writers such as Charles Bernstein have reassessed the underlying fear of the Cartesian methodology and have sought to bring a new found attention to through a contemporary lens, using conceptual poetry. Rather than openly calling upon a sense of doubt on society, Bernstein seeks to insinuate a commentary on the lack of self-reflection in modern society. As Descartes wrote “if you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”15 Perhaps Bernstein’s conceptual work “My-My-My,” a list of seemingly disjointed possessive “my”s each followed by an object, body part or emotion, may be perceived as a method by which to bring attention to and, by extension, doubt upon each of these objects. The repetition of the word “my” alludes to a false sense of self in society. The abundance of ‘things’ found in the poem which are meant to characterize the person in question, can be interpreted as a statement on how mindless consumption has led to a lack of reflective understanding of the self. The majority of these words, such as “my pillow, my shirt, my house,” are mere objects that are the products of social conventions.16 By illustrating these objects as defining factors of the narrator’s identity, Bernstein implicitly reinstated the notion of the Cartesian fear. The act of writing out all of these things also points the reader’s awareness toward them. His writing thus also serves as a means to become more aware of the things people have passively accepted.

The intellectual stimulation readers receive from Bernstein’s work is correlated to the level of investment that the reader is willing to put in. Conceptual poetry could thus on the one hand be perceived as resulting in a heightened sense of Sophia, much like with the Classics, but that is only true when the reader takes the time to consciously analyze the text. In order for this type of contemporary writing to fulfill its meditative quality, there is a need for the reader to actively be analyzing it as to go past the seemingly aimless face-value of the poetry in search for a deeper hidden meaning. On the other hand, if one does not take the time to reflect over the significance behind conceptual poetry, then perhaps this field of writing merely adds to existing information overload. The scope of interpretation that comes with conceptual writing puts the reader in a dominant position. The meaning, theme and thought process extracted from this type of literature must come from the reader, as the piece itself is too abstract to have any valuable meaning on its own. This form of writing seeks genuine reflective wisdom to which Descartes and Thoreau have referred and which generate self-defined thoughts within the copious amounts of information found in the world.

In order to form a wise mind that is able to navigate the pools of information propagated in society, thinkers and writers have reverted to understanding the self and forming a critical mind as to discern true information from the prejudiced or superfluous. The stream of biased information presented in the media may far too easily inculcate one and thus one must be wary of this fact. Descartes responded to this fear by perceiving the world through a methodological skepticism, a notion which could indirectly also be read via Bernstein’s poetry. Although contemporary conceptual poetry strongly contrasts with the Classics Thoreau referred to, it engages a similar type of personal analysis and reflection. The need to pondering external elements through the self is the most virtuous test of something’s truth, as veracity is contingent upon the individual. Husserl, Emerson, and Thoreau all weighed the importance of personal contemplation, as Descartes instated, all one knows in the world is the fact of his or her own existence. If all one knows is what he or she perceives through one’s own eyes and understands through his or her own brain, then one’s unique internalization of the world becomes the key to that person’s sense of truth in life.

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  9. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print. (p. 54)
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  16. Charles Bernstein.”My-My-My.” Audio recording. UbuWeb Sound : Charles Bernstein. Web. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.