How do we navigate information overload?

I am often struck at how prophetic many older books on technology are in light of our modern debates over technology and the role of social media in our lives. It is far too easy to believe that many of the problems we face today are completely new and have no historical background or insight. As we have seen over the last weeks and months, there is a substantial debate over the influence of social media and how these information-driven tools impact our social discourse along with the rising tide of misinformation. It doesn’t take a trained sociologist or cultural observer to see that we are in an era of rapid technological advances and innovation, which has ushered in a cataclysmic breakdown of public trust, a weakening of our institutions, and an all out assault on truth itself. 

In 1992, Neil Postman predicted much of our modern technological ills well before the internet was widely available, and Google, Facebook, and Twitter were not even ideas in the minds of their founders. Postman prophetically describes in his classic work, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture Technology, how our society has become overrun with information to the point where we are unable to process and digest it. A never ending flow of information and data presents a host of problems―often without clear answers or a compelling path forward. Postman states that our society has become a technopoly where “the defenses against information glut have broken down.” (72) This abundance of information, especially with the current ubiquity and our dependence on social media, has ushered in a state of constant updates, underdeveloped stories, misinformation, and disinformation that are shaping the ways that we perceive the world around us.

Postman describes how humanity has historically used various social defenses or “control mechanisms” such as religion, government, the press, educational institutions, and most importantly, the family to control and validate the information we receive each day. These control mechanisms were designed to help direct our attention to what is true and good, protecting us from information glut, but it has been widely assumed in the technological age that these defenses have been exposed as inadequate, outdated, unhelpful, biased, or even dangerous. As many of the traditional defenses were overrun with the advent of modern technologies, we became constantly inundated and overrun with information, leaving us dazed and confused, longing for a path forward in this chaotic world of technology and social media.

There are countless benefits to these social technologies such as having access to various perspectives from all around the world, more information at our fingertips than any generation before, and ways to stay connected over long distances. This has often allowed us to address certain social ills and stand up for the rights of all people, no matter where they live. But as Postman shows, one of the unfortunate byproducts of these advances in technology and communication is the constant breakdown of these traditional methods of information processing that helped keep us sane and order our world. With the loss of the control mechanisms, we are seeing the complete fragmentation of a shared truth, fractured communities, and the growth of hyper partisan rage. Just as we think we are getting our grasp on the moment at hand, something else occurs and new information is added to the glut, which leads us toward a despondency and fear often without a clear sense of hope or restoration.

Postman says that “when there is too much information to sustain any theory, information becomes essentially meaningless.” (77) This process has given rise to fake news, disinformation, and conspiracy theories where truth seems to give way to growing divides and personal agendas. One of the broken defenses he examines at length is religion, specifically Christianity. He argues that a biblical worldview isn’t able to sustain the influx of information in our modern age. Postman states that “necessarily but perhaps unfortunately, the Bible also explained how the world came into being in such literal detail that it could not accommodate new information produced by the telescope and subsequent technologies.” (78)

This is one area where I feel that Postman misses the mark, but not from a lack of prophetic vision about the role of technology in our lives. He wrongly treats religion, specifically Christianity, as simply a theory of information control rather than the transcendent worldview and revelation from the creator God who speaks into our chaotic world a word of calming and reorienting peace. It is easy to see why he argues this though, because many of us do the same thing with our faith each day. We often try to compartmentalize our faith as just one aspect of our lives among many, rather than allowing Christ to completely reorient the entirety of our lives around his design for humanity as his image bearers. Christianity is not simply something to tag onto our everyday lives. It is a way of true life (John 14:6) that transforms every aspect of our lives (Romans 12:2). It is not simply a theory of information processing, but it is truly the path to the greatest flourishing because it aligns with God’s true design for humanity and this world.

A compartmentalized faith will not ultimately be able to sustain us in this technological society. Just as Postman describes how our society seeks to deal with our information glut by relying on more technology to solve the problem it itself brought about, we cannot find stability in our divisive and broken culture with more technology, more social media, or even a greater emphasis on ourselves in this society that is already fixated on individual autonomy. As we seek to navigate the promises and perils of this technological age together, we must recover the age-old truths and the robust ethic that accords with the design of life, rooted in the transcendent revelation of God. A myopic faith coupled with a myopic understanding of technology can only lead to peril, but the recovery of these transcendent truths can lead to flourishing and path forward in our technological age.