Instant Information!

Perhaps the most profound effect of the information revolution is the fact that information is now available at an instant, almost anywhere.   Often it is trivial, but consider one example.   We saw the musical Chicago at the Maine State Music Theater this weekend and read that the woman who played Velma had appeared on Desperate Housewives. There was no mention of who she played or when.   After less than a minute of searching on the Droid (mobile phone with internet access) my wife  found out it was season one, episode twenty, and she played a salesperson.    We were in the car, having just left the theater.

Almost always if a question arises, an answer can be found fast.  Information that at one point would require trips to the library, inquiries at town hall, or even travel abroad now can be found quickly.     I had a research grant to live a year in Germany to study party and media archives in Bonn for my dissertation in 1991-92.   Now I could do that kind of research from my office, printing and down loading files that twenty years ago I had to to Europe, find on microfiche and then copy.

What does this all mean?   What will be the cultural, political and social impact of being able to find whatever information we want instantaneously?

There are a number of positive implications that are pretty obvious.   I’ve always believed that the more knowledge you have about something (an event, a country to be visited, a play, etc.) the more valuable the experience.    We can learn about the context of just about every thing we do, and thereby get more out of what we do.   If I go see a play I’ve never heard of, I routinely research it and afterwards learn more about the actors, writer, and meaning of the play.  When traveling it’s easier to learn the historical and cultural context of the places visited.   Used properly, instant information is also a way to instantly enrich ones’ experience of life.

Problem solving becomes easier.   No matter what realm the problem is in, you can find a solution on line, often in the form of others posing that problem and getting answers on line.   If you want to buy a product there are on line reviews and ways to compare.    Understanding world events is easier; you do not have to rely on Fox or CNN, you can read news sources from around the world and from a variety of perspectives.

Looked at from the perspective of history, the rise of the internet and instant information is of such profound significance as the development of the printing press in 1439.   The printing press changed how people thought, communicated and ultimately helped usher in a revolution in politics and society that allowed the Europeans to conquer the world.  Sure, the steam engine, science, and enlightenment thought were more directly causal, but without the printing press ideas could not have spread so fast, changing the entire face of the planet.

There is no reason to doubt that our current information revolution will have a similar impact.   Everything about our world is set to change.   When the generation growing up now reaches retirement age, their world will likely be organized much differently.   Even the sovereign state could disappear, as well as the very way of life we associate with modern America.  Because humans avoid cognitive dissonance and tend to expect things to continue as they have been, the inevitability of change is often unrecognized, and even denied as it occurs.  This means that the  way people think about the world changes only in response to events, usually involving generational change.   A new generation raised in different circumstances embraces what the older generation rejected.  However, since the older generation has political power, they often react to changes in a way that risks violence and instability — they try to force an old way of thinking on new circumstances.  Will the same thing happen here?

Perhaps not.  My generation, now the ‘older in power’ generation (Obama is my age, after all) is used to change.  We’ve lived from pre-cable TV and vinyl record albums to I-pods and hulu.com.    We’ve lived the 1980 Rush lyric, “changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”    Hopefully, we’ll prove adept at navigating this new era — giving the debt we’re leaving the next generation, we owe them at least that!    But what challenges might arise from “instant information?”

1)  The demise of the sovereign state.   As interdependence grows, and the US economy needs oil from the Mideast, cooperation from China and other states to whom we are in debt, and as cultures clash across borders, sovereignty as we’ve known it will be challenged.   We’ll still have legal entities called states, but the idea of complete independence and ‘splendid isolation’ are already gone.    That guarantees a nationalist backlash and a bout of xenophobia and fear, whether it’s about multilateral treaties, immigration, or relations with others.   We have to navigate this change safely.

2) Terrorism and WMD.   The good news is that al qaeda and Islamic extremists are being rejected by most of the Muslim world.  They may not like the US, but they don’t want the anti-modern spartan life demanded by the extremists.  They don’t want war and death, they want their own culture to undergo peaceful change.  The bad news is that terrorism and WMD levels the playing field, and renders a country like the US vulnerable in a way not previously experienced (before 9-11-01).  The next uprising may be based on economic rebellion from Africa, or perhaps an anti-Yankee wave from Latin America.  We have to not over-react, and pro-actively deal with the roots of such potential uprisings, not waiting until it’s too late.   Terror networks know how to use the ‘instant information’ to design weapons, plan attacks and communicate.   They cannot be defeated by military means alone, but by making their message unpopular in their own cultures.

3)  Lack of Communication.   This seems odd, but think of it as the equivalent of yellow journalism with the printing press.   Blogs, diverse news sources, and a lack of standards  means people tend to be drawn to messages that fit what they already believe, and which often create a sense of righteousness against the “other side.”  Rather than people with different views communicating, they might simply fight — like the tea party vs. the left.    If that stymies political adaption to change, it could create paralysis when we need action.   We need to talk about big issues across party and ideological lines if we are to adapt to these transformations.

We live in very interesting times, and the generation of young people now face unique and difficult challenges in the years ahead.   It’s a bit scary, but also very exciting.

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