Is America Addicted to Information?

All information wants to be free is the the unofficial slogan of the Internet age, but is true? Nick Carr argues that we spend more on information now than ever before -- what with Internet service, cable service, phone bills, and other information service fees. Alan Jacobs from The New Atlantis takes Carr's observation somewhere very interesting...

One of Nick's commenters suggests that his point is misleading because we're not paying all that much per bit of data. That's probably true, but it may not make the point the commenter wants it to make. Consider an analogy to restaurant dining: Americans in the past twenty years have spent far, far more on eating out than any of their ancestors did, and that's a significant development even if you point out that huge portions of fat-laden food mean that they're not paying all that much per calorie. In fact, that analogy may work on more than one level: are we unhealthily addicted to information (of any kind, and regardless of quality) in the same way that we're addicted to fatty foods?

We pay hundreds of dollars for information services, and not a penny in exchange for specific bits of information. To continue the food analogy, browsing the Internet isn't like a restaurant, where each plate has an affixed price. It's more like paying a lump sum for a resort club with unlimited access to the buffet. As a result, you eat a lot of food because there's no marginal cost to eating more.

The question of whether Americans are in fact addicted to information takes us in another direction that I'll the Disinformation Revolution. In a review of the top ideas of the last decade, I wrote: "An Internet connection plunges us into a nearly infinite reservoir of knowledge, and yet our relationship with the truth remains fraught...

"Just as "weapons of mass destruction" made a mockery of intelligence, the 9/11 Truther conspiracy and Obama-as-illegal-alien Birther storyline used information in the disservice of truth. Moreover, they used lack of information (where's that birth certificate?) as an indictment--a maneuver that could only be possible in an age when everything is supposedly knowable.

"In his 2008 book True Enough, Farhad Manjoo explains that the fragmentation of the Internet allows different groups to create, and live in, their own "split" realities. Facts can't find us anymore--instead, we find our own "facts" in the corners of the Internet that reflect our beliefs. "Truthiness," the 2006 Miriam Webster word of the year coined by Stephen Colbert, means "truth that comes from the gut." In other words, it is belief cross-dressing as certainty. The World Wide Web is a resource many times larger than the largest library in history. Yet the very size and structure of the Internet guarantees that we will find what we we're looking for rather than what we need to know."

I think there are two things going on here. The first part is demand. Our willingness to pay hundreds of dollars for Internet access -- and often not a penny in exchange for specific pieces of Internet content -- depreciates the perceived value of the newspaper articles and songs we access "for free." As a result, the same way an all-expenses-paid resort encourages over-eating, our all-content-paid access to the Internet encourages us to gorge on both high and low quality information.

The second part is supply. The same way our obesity epidemic is fueled by outrageous oversupply of corn products, our information addiction is goaded by the Internet's superabundance of content that free software and low barriers to entry make incredibly easy to produce online. And this allows consumers to cocoon themselves in corners of the Internet that reinforce their viewpoints, no matter how limited or prejudiced. The size and structure of the Internet guarantees that we will find what we we're looking for rather than what we need to know.