Too Much Information Overwhelms Us All

Americans are not ignorant. They’re stupid.

Ignorance comes from lack of information. Stupidity results from an inability or refusal to process information. Our democracy relies on an informed citizenry, so we have instituted free speech, public schools, open meetings, public airwaves, disclosure requirements — all designed to get information to the public. Our system’s framers contemplated no strategies for an electorate that becomes stupefied.

We try to keep up, but we’re overwhelmed by the flood of information that deluges us daily. We pine for simplicity. And we harbor unspoken fears that others may also be falling behind, but that we’re falling behind faster.

We try to adapt. We filter information aggressively. We seek voices we find agreeable. We repeat lines and arguments that others made memorable or convincing. We latch onto ideas that make us feel/appear adequate. We share those ideas, hopeful that others are likewise listening only to agreeable voices.

America has been narrowing its collective attention for a full generation.

Thirty-one years ago today, our national consciousness took a significant turn that has tangible consequences today. But because we didn’t notice when it happened and we haven’t marked the date, its importance continues and grows. It was on this day that the Too Much Information Age began.

The shift began a year earlier, when 52 Americans were held hostage in the Iranian Embassy. Americans responded by wanting to know everything there was to know about these 52 Americans. Media companies responded, and the floodgates were opened. The New York Times ran pages of personal profiles every day for months. ABC-TV launched what became “Nightline,” extending nightly newscasts for another 30 minutes.

But all the extra information did not calm people’s spirits. If anything, keeping up with the information being offered produced an inner sense of peril that matched the horrors we were watching out of Tehran. For the first time in two generations, America was afraid.

Then came October 28, 1980.

Just a week before the general election, President Jimmy Carter agreed to his only debate with Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. The trajectories of their parties and the ideologies they represented were set for the next generation — all flowing from quips uttered that evening.

Reagan had been asked how he intended to increase military spending while also reducing taxes. Reagan replied with a short explanation of supply-side economics, which later came to be known as “Reaganomics.” Carter’s retort was rehearsed: “H. L. Mencken said that for every problem there’s a simple answer. It would be neat and plausible and wrong.”

Carter misattributed the quote, which originated with George Bernard Shaw, but never mind that. Liberals for three decades now have avoided simple answers.

Reagan’s seminal quote is shorter and probably less rehearsed — but also more memorable. “There you go again,” was his response after Carter pushed for a national health insurance program. His derision of the complexity of Carter’s proposal bookended Carter’s insistence that answers cannot be simple.

Conservatives have since favored candidates and policies that can be explained to everyday people. When experts warn that a simple answer won’t work, Republicans summon Reagan’s “there you go again” smirk, marginalizing the intelligentsia.

Journalists have internalized this double standard, expecting simple but passionate positions from the ideological right, and high-minded arguments with mind-numbing details from the left.

Occupy Wall Street is belittled in the press because their demands are not clearly listed, as if “economic justice” doesn’t suffice. Yet the Tea Party’s beginnings were no more articulate, storming town hall meeting with vague or uninformed complaints about government intrusions.

When a character comes on the scene that doesn’t fit the narrative, media resists, reinforcing the paradigm. Only occasionally does an exception slip through.

“Yes We Can!” took hold in 2008. Barack Obama was new. He was young. He was black. He took Howard Dean’s populist howl and added syncopation. But Obama’s not new anymore. Slowly, our president’s image has been transformed from an electrifying organizer into a professorial scold.

Simple ideas are now favored, even if they aren’t good ideas. We erected a wall against complexity and then forgot the wall was built by us. And not very long ago.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.