Article ID: JAF5342 | By: James Patrick Holding
This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 02 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
The Information Age has arrived with many benefits, but it also has a darker side. Technology capable of delivering information both conveniently and rapidly—electronic mail, texting, and the Internet—has fostered in some technology users a condition known as information overload. Users find themselves unwittingly addicted to the machines that were designed to serve them, and increasingly unable to cope with a growing flood of information available through electronic conduits. As modern research shows, unfortunately, such behavior can adversely affect mental habits, making it difficult for affected users to concentrate deeply.
For the apologist, information overload presents a number of daunting challenges. The gathering and sifting of information is central to the practice of apologetics, and we need to be disciplined in our uses of information technology in order not to become “overloaded.” The apologist will also find it difficult to dialogue with victims of information overload, who will not be receptive to the sort of extended, detailed arguments that apologetics frequently requires. Instead, victims of information overload will more frequently turn to whatever sources are most easily found online, and grant those sources immediate credibility rather than critically analyze them. Unfortunately, the sources that are most easily found tend to be user-generated materials lacking in serious scholarship.
Ultimately, it is users, not user technology, that are at the heart of the “information overload” problem. As defenders of the Christian faith, we must be prepared to shepherd wayward travelers in cyberspace through the universe of information that the new technologies have wrought.
Seventh-grade student Susan Jones has an eight-page report due on the subject of Africa. She must use five sources. One can be an encyclopedia. At the public library, Susan looks in the subject catalog under “Africa.” She writes down the titles and Dewey numbers of four books and finds them on the shelf. Before she checks out, Susan takes notes from an encyclopedia article on Africa. She takes her books home and sits at a table writing her report.
Seventh-grade student Frank Smith has an eight-page report due on the subject of Africa. He must use five sources. One of them cannot be the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. At home, Frank turns on his television, puts in his iPod earbuds, and turns on his laptop. For the next several hours, Frank hops between e-mail, texting friends, and Facebook, opening a second browser window to look up song lyrics, all while typing his report. He begins with Google and puts in the word “Africa.” Nearly 450 million hits are listed. He selects three sources from the first page of links, and two references in the Wikipedia article (which comes up as Google’s first entry).
The Internet has changed the way we look at information. Only a few decades ago, information was viewed as something that was collected in libraries, with their musty-smelling books, and librarians with sour stares invoking silence. Today, information is a commodity than can be traded in anyone’s home at any hour, using a variety of technologies. The Information Age has come of age.
According to some observers, however, the Internet is not only changing the way we access information, it is also changing the way we process information. Where before, information was distributed in ways that were orderly and passive, it is now released in a mind-numbing maelstrom that taxes the mental capacities of information seekers. If these observers are correct about the effects of rapid-fire information delivery, the impact on the practice of Christian apologetics could be significant.
Technology writer Nicholas Carr has connections. He enjoys many of the conveniences of technology: e-mail, cell phones, Internet access, and social networking Web sites. These and other blessings of the Information Age are an inextricable part of his daily life.
However, Carr began noticing something about the way he used these blessings. He had an account not with just one social networking site, but several. He always turned to online sources for news first; his newspaper would become old news by the time he got to it. He checked his e-mail every one to two minutes. In his words, “[My brain] was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from the computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected.”1 Carr also found it harder to concentrate deeply. The reading of books inspired impatience rather than pleasure, for he had become accustomed to the new technology’s rapid-fire delivery of ever-newer information.
Carr is not alone in his experiences. As predicted by the futurist Alvin Toffler, the Information Age has spawned information overload,2 and many find themselves working harder to keep up with the technology that was supposed to make their lives easier. The root of the problem, however, lies not in technology, but in human biology. The brain, once thought to be “set in stone” in terms of development when past a certain age, is now recognized to maintain a high degree of plasticity even in adulthood.3 According to neuroscientists, information overload has trained the brains of heavy technology users to crave more and newer “highs,” producing “the digital equivalent of alcoholism.”4 The effects are so serious that Carr says of the Internet: “[it] may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”5
The results of information overload are all around us. We routinely hear stories of drivers distracted by cell phones, or parents too engrossed in computer games to attend to their children, or mothers so occupied with Facebook that they leave a meal unattended on the stove.6 But information overload will also make it increasingly difficult to practice apologetics effectively, and this can be readily seen in the effects it has had on other media venues.
In March 2008, the New York Times announced that it would devote three pages to “paragraph-long article abstracts and other brief items” that would allow readers “to get a quick ‘taste’ of the day’s news, sparing them the ‘less efficient’ method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles.”7 Initially, the Times’ intentions sound attractive, if not indeed more efficient. But consumers overloaded by information are sure to wonder why they should bother with a printed resource at all. Why not also eliminate the “inefficient” practice of opening the newspaper, or bending over to get the newspaper off the doorstep, especially when what is online offers just as much depth?
The New York Times is not alone in its strivings to remain relevant in a culture increasingly addicted to connectivity. One orchestra conductor sent out text messages during a symphony, explaining musical references, via Twitter (a Web site that allows users to communicate in messages of 140 characters or less).8 Nor are churches immune to the allure: one pastor occasionally encourages congregants to use Twitter to send messages to one another during sermons. As a news article reports, “If worship is about creating community, Twitter is an undeniably useful tool. The trick is to not let the chatter overshadow the need for quiet reflection that spirituality requires.”9
As Carr and others have found, that is precisely the problem with information overload: services such as Twitter are geared towards “chatter.” It is like placing a resort next to a busy highway and saying that the key to vacationing there is to not let the noise overshadow the need for quiet relaxation.
These examples illustrate a conundrum for the apologist, for most of the arguments we address cannot be resolved in the midst of chatter. The problem of evil is not answerable with sound bites, and the reliability of the Bible cannot be established in texts of 140 characters or less. We may find it difficult to present a cogent case that will hold the attention of the information addict, and rather than being presented with a thoughtful, engaging response that might move our dialogue partner toward faith, we may find our detailed answers dismissed with “TL;DR”—too long, didn’t read. It is also unfortunate that while our case is seldom able to be compressed into 140 characters or less, the case of the opposition is frequently amenable to such compression. To cogently express the problem of evil requires little more than asking, “How could God allow ______?” and inserting a reference to some disastrous event in the headlines. A theodicy (a justification of God in the face of evil), by contrast, requires a great deal more work by a defender, and a great deal more concentration by a dialogue partner.
Not all commentators think “information overload” is beyond human capacity to manage, and point to the example of today’s youngest students. Education specialist Larry Rosen notes that “today’s kids are used to a fast, shallow pace of information presentation and get bored when trying to absorb information at the rates that were normal for their parents when they were in school.”10 Rosen finds that many students are just like Frank in our example above, possessing “superior multitasking skills,”11 which enable them to complete their assignments as well as students of the past: “The research does demonstrate rather convincingly that students who communicate during a learning experience perform equally well as those who read the material and have no outside communication—it just takes them longer to finish the assignment.”12 While Rosen admits that other studies show that multitasking “most often leads to slower performance and increased errors,” he responds that these studies were performed under laboratory conditions, with time limits. In other studies, where time was not a factor, both single-taskers and multitaskers did equally well.13 Rosen thus challenges educators to adapt to the social and educational needs of multitaskers through the use of such elements as multimedia and online discussion groups. This is sound counsel. But it is also worth asking whether Rosen’s suggestions have any application beyond the primary or secondary educational level. It is perhaps viable for students to multitask their way through an eight-page report on Africa. It is not so easy to envision them doing the same during doctoral studies. One of Rosen’s student interviewees acknowledged that while he multitasks in some classes during school, others “are too hard and I really need to pay attention.”14 The mental habits created by multitasking may become so permeated in students’ minds that it becomes difficult for them to revert to the more careful, deliberative form of thought that more complex subjects (such as apologetics) might require of them.
There are signs that students have difficulty with such reversion: “While they are highly adept computer users, young students do not possess great Internet skills in the classroom, either in searching for or in evaluating websites.”15 The flood of Internet-based information means more time is spent managing the flow with multitasking, and less is spent critically evaluating information for relevance and truth. The gift of multitasking may be a Trojan horse.
Search engines are the gateways through which the Internet may be explored. The Google search engine received a total of 13.8 billion search queries in November 2009 alone, with other search engines adding some 9 billion searches to the total.16 But search engines have also become a blunt tool in the hands of the unwary surfer. A study of college students shows that when using a search engine, 42 percent use only the first five results they find, while only 3 percent go beyond the first three pages of search results, “which most educators would argue is necessary to find the best and most reliable information.”17 Information overload has discouraged users from delving too deeply into the returns they receive, and it is not hard to understand why: faced with a reported 450 million hits from a simple search of “Africa,” many simply reach for whatever is at the top of the list.
Unfortunately, most Internet users do not have adequate training in using online data search tools. Professional researchers have been making use of database search engines such as Google for decades, and receive special training in their use.18 Everyday users, in contrast, generally do not understand how to refine their searches in order to achieve optimal results, and so draw false conclusions about the nature of the returns Google provides.
An example of which I have learned involved an atheist who believed that Jesus did not exist as a historical person. This atheist noted that by inputting “historians who believe there was no Jesus” into Google, he was able to turn up 276,000 entries! He took this to mean that there were 276,000 independent, valid sources that would affirm that there were credentialed historians who believed Jesus did not exist.19 Unfortunately, it is not unusual for users to misinterpret search engine results in this fashion, or in some equally inscrutable way. A stunning example was reported by the United Kingdom’s Office of Communications, which performed a study indicating that nearly a third of Internet users aged twelve to fifteen thought that search engines ranked results according to truthfulness.20
To add to the confusion, shrewd Web site managers have found ways to manipulate search results for ideological or commercial ends. A phenomenon called “Google bombing”—raising the rank of an Internet site in searches by inserting code in strategic places on a Web page—has produced some interesting results. One set of “bombers” managed to make it so that a search of the phrase “miserable failure” placed the official White House biography page for George W. Bush atop Google listings for that search.21
Search engines can also unwittingly add to the confusion in the way they rank results. Google has started making a greater priority of ranking “freshness”—how recently a page is updated.22 Another ranking factor is usage: “The more people click on a link that results from a search, the more likely that link will come up in subsequent searches.”23 With these elements involved in rankings, it is not surprising that pages from Wikipedia (the online encyclopedia editable by users) frequently come up first in search rankings: Wikipedia pages are sometimes edited multiple times a day, and once they have a place atop search results, they are likely to be selected again and again.
Consistently ranking as one of the ten most used Web sites in the world, Wikipedia bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” To that phrase should perhaps be appended the word “anonymously,” as it reflects a critical problem at the heart of Wikipedia’s functions. As University of Iowa history professor Marshall Poe favorably observes, Wikipedia represents the theory that truth is arrived at by consensus.24 Whatever expertise one brings to the table matters little. A New Testament scholar could add information to one of Wikipedia’s articles on the historical reliability of the Bible, only to find it erased hours later by an anonymous user who may be no more than a disgruntled atheist without academic credentials.
Poe and other defenders of Wikipedia reply that Wikipedia’s volunteer editors can do a competent job of making sure the truth is not obscured. They point to the example of journalist John Seigenthaler, whose Wikipedia entry “long contained a libel about his supposed complicity in the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy.” Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia and had the error removed, and for some time after, the Wikipedia page on Seigenthaler was monitored to prevent further tampering. Poe concludes: “Given enough eyeballs, all errors are shallow.”25
However, by Wikipedia’s own accounting, as of July 2, 2010, there were over fifteen million articles in a variety of languages in the Wikipedia database, with 3.3 million of those in English.26 All of this is regulated by merely “tens of thousands” of editors, who can be “everyone from expert scholars to casual readers.”27 Are “tens of thousands” of unknown editors of uncertain qualification sufficient to act as guardians for an information trust used by hundreds of millions of people? There are good reasons to say that they are not, and the most poignant leads back to the matter of information overload.
In March 2009, Shane Fitzgerald, an Irish university student, exposed the soft underbelly of Wikipedia when he posted a phony quotation on the Wikipedia page of just-deceased French musician Maurice Jarre.28 He posted the quote without any source citation, and reposted it twice after editors removed it. However, although editors removed the quote quickly (within minutes in one case, within hours in another), they could not act fast enough to prevent “dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper Web sites” worldwide from finding the quote and repeating it. The pressure of information overload thus illustrates the folly of the situation: although editors were able to correct Jarre’s page quickly, those who used the quote had already come and gone. To manage their universe of information, Wikipedia will not merely need “enough eyeballs,” but enough eyeballs that can move at a supersonic pace.
Questions of Wikipedia’s reliability are also frequently answered by appeal to a study done by the science journal Nature, showing that Wikipedia had only slightly more errors per article than the Encyclopedia Britannica.29 The study, however, is open to serious methodological criticism.30 Furthermore, Wikipedia excels mainly in pop culture and “hard science”—the latter being the only sort of articles Nature evaluated.31
Commentary on user-generated Internet resources would not be complete without reference to the video-sharing Web site YouTube. Although there are many video-sharing Web sites available, YouTube trumps them all in terms of popularity, receiving over a billion views a day as of October 2009.32
Unlike Wikipedia, YouTube is not posed as an information resource. It includes footage of everything from skateboarding dogs to karaoke renditions. However, its democratic setting gives users leave to post any sort of informational claims they wish, no matter how bizarre. YouTube gave legs to the movie Zeitgeist, a third of which is devoted to an attempt to prove that Jesus did not exist and was created from a pastiche of pagan myths.33 Zeitgeist also presents arguments that the 9/11 bombings were engineered by the Bush administration.
Another YouTube-hosted 9/11 conspiracy film, Loose Change, has been found by nearly four million viewers as of this date.34 Produced by three college students with no relevant expertise, Loose Change is a “pastiche of found footage” gathered from other conspiracy theorists. Journalist Farhad Manjoo summarizes the content of the film as “a trick of selective exposure and interpretation and of dismissing as fake the evidence that doesn’t jibe with your views.”35
Finally, YouTube provides opportunities for the everyday critic of Christianity to air his or her grievances. One YouTube user who designates himself “NonStampCollector” is typical of the genre. He has produced dozens of crudely animated and crudely argued films critical of Christianity, some of which have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.36
For the apologist, user-modified sources such as Wikipedia and YouTube engender serious difficulties for earnest dialogue. We may find our detailed arguments trumped by dialogue partners who regard Wikipedia, or some pseudonymous video on YouTube, as the last word on a subject. This problem also has the makings of a self-perpetuating cycle: “Every visit to Wikipedia’s free information hive means one less customer for a professionally researched and edited encyclopedia such as Britannica.”37 The principles of what the market will bear dictate that as free, haphazard resources such as Wikipedia and YouTube grow, there will be less encouragement for qualified researchers to produce quality resources, which in turn means that the apologist will have fewer qualified resources on which to call—and those which are available may become more obscure and difficult to find.
Obviously, the best solution to these woes is not to discard our computers and return to a pre-electric era. Technology is only a vehicle through which virtue or vice may be expressed, and it is not hard to find more archaic parallels to the sort of phenomena we have been exploring here.38 Since there can be no turning back of the clock, we must design coping mechanisms for living in the Information Age.
If we find ourselves suffering from information overload, the simplest and most obvious solution may be the hardest: unplug. Spend more time in activities disconnected from technology, and cut off the overload at its source. Like any addiction, information overload requires a treatment involving staying away from the source of the addiction.
In that sense, information overload can be difficult to combat since so many of us are required to be “wired” to perform our job duties. But there are simple ways to limit our exposure to sources of information to that which is only absolutely necessary, paring off all of that which is “pure, self-created bustle.”39 Certainly anyone can do without following hundreds of friends on Facebook or Twitter telling us what they had for lunch today, and it is difficult to believe that someone such as the teenager who logged 300,000 text messages in a single month40 received each of those as a result of some unavoidable necessity.
If, on the other hand, we are dialoguing with those who suffer from information overload, it may be difficult to find commendable solutions. If your Web site or video presentation takes too long to load, the new generation of users may be off somewhere else without a backwards glance.41 If your argument is too long and involved, “TL;DR” may be all the answer you receive. Creating apologetics resources and arguments attuned to the new generation of technology users, with their strong emphasis on immediacy, and their insatiable hunger for multimedia variety, while also not compromising truth and accuracy, will be one of our greatest challenges in the coming years.42
Rosen compares searching for information on the Internet to “mining the Wild, Wild West” and says, “without understanding how to search and find the best information, there is simply no way for [students] to know whether the content they’ve discovered is a diamond or a lump of coal.”43 Learning critical use of Internet resources is an essential step to reducing information overload: if we know how to use a resource such as Google sagely, we will be less apt to produce millions of unwanted results.
Not all users can attend training in the use of search engines, but there are a number of tutorials available that make it easier to know how to refine a search.44 To use an illustrative example, if we are looking for information on taking a game-hunting trip in Africa, inputting only “Africa,” as noted, will produce over 450 million results. We can refine our search by adding additional phrases, such as “game hunting,” the name of the African nation we wish to visit (“Kenya”), and “travel.” This alone reduces the results to just over 14,000 and makes it easier to find relevant results.
The apostle Paul never dreamed that being “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22 NIV) would mean coping with dialogue partners addicted to text messaging! Nevertheless, unless our calling takes us to another mission field, the effects of technology will inevitably have an impact on our apologetics and evangelism. We will need to learn to adjust to the technology so that it does not end up adjusting us.
James Patrick Holding is president of Tekton Apologetics Ministries and author of Defending the Resurrection (Xulon Press, 2009).
- Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 16.
- Toffler invented this phrase in his book Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1984).
- Carr, 26. The Spanish neuroanatomist Ramon y Cajal is frequently quoted as embodying the former view when he said, in 1913, “In adult centers, the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated.” Quoted by Donald S. Dwyer, The Pharmacology of Neurogenesis and Neuroenhancement (Maryland Heights, MO: Academic Press, 2007), 58.
- William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 68.
- Carr, 116.
- Some accounts of this phenomenon are documented by C. Wayne Mayhall, “What Price Cyberspace?” Christian Research Journal 31, 6 (2008): 12–19. See also Matt Richtel, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price,” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html, and Julie Scelfo, “Risks of Parenting while Plugged In,” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/garden/10childtech.html. Accessed July 1, 2010.
- Ibid., 96.
- Bonnie Rochman, “Twittering in Church, with the Pastor’s O.K.,” http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1895463,00.html. Accessed July 1, 2010.
- Larry D. Rosen, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 85.
- Ibid., 5.
- Ibid., 67.
- Ibid., 76.
- Ibid., 92.
- Ibid., 155–6.
- For these statistics, see http://www.comscore.com/Press_Events/Press_Releases/2009/12/comScore_Releases_November_2009_U.S._Search_Engine_Rankings. Accessed July 1, 2010.
- Rosen, 155.
- As a library science student at Florida State University in the early 1990s, I was required to take a course in online searching methods, using private databases.
- In contrast, I know of only one credentialed historian who believes that Jesus did not exist, and he is an atheist who was sympathetic to this view prior to obtaining his doctorate.
- Office of Communications, UK Children’s Media Literacy: 2009 Interim Report, http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/media-literacy/full_report.pdf , 2. Accessed July 9, 2010.
- Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values (New York: Broadway Business, 2008), 95–6.
- Carr, 158.
- Keen, 6.
- Marshall Poe, “The Hive,” http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/09/thehive/5118/. Accessed July 10, 2010.
- “Wikipedia: About,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About. Accessed July 10, 2010.
- “Wikipedia: Editorial Oversight and Control,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Editorial_oversight_and_control. Accessed July 10, 2010.
- “Student Hoaxes World’s Media with Fake Quote,” http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/technology&id=6807750. Accessed July 10, 2010.
- Daniel Terdiman, “Study: Wikipedia as Accurate as Britannica,” http://news.cnet.com/2100-1038_3-5997332.html. Accessed July 10, 2010.
- Britannica has produced a point-by-point response, “Fatally Flawed: Refuting the Recent Study on Encyclopedic Accuracy by the Journal Nature,” http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf. See also Carr’s analysis, “Nature’s Flawed Study of Wikipedia’s Quality,” http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/02/community_and_h.php. Accessed July 10, 2010.
- Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 142.
- Chad Hurley, “Y,000,000,000uTube,” http://youtubeglobal.blogspot.com/2009/10/y000000000utube.html. Accessed July 10, 2010.
- See my article, “Confronting the Spirit of the Age,” Christian Research Journal 32, 5 (2009): 52–53.
- According to the film’s statistics at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7E3oIbO0AWE. Accessed July 10, 2010. This does not account for how many people have viewed Loose Change at other video-sharing sites.
- Farhad Manjoo, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2008), 92.
- http://www.youtube.com/user/NonStampCollector. Accessed July 19, 2010.
- Keen, 29.
- Carr, The Shallows, 18, notes the example of Friedrich Nietzsche, who, as his eyesight deteriorated, purchased a manual typewriter so he could keep writing. Using the typewriter had the effect of making Nietzsche’s writing “tighter” and “more telegraphic.” Likewise, Powers throughout his book observes that “information overload” was a complaint heard even due to inventions such as the telegraph.
- Powers, 113.
- As reported by Powers, 15.
- Rosen, 49.
- One such effort is the adaptation of The Apologetics Study Bible to use on an iPhone. http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-apologetics-study-bible/id362562195?mt=8. Accessed July 16, 2010.
- Rosen, 150.
- Such as, “Boolean Searching on the Internet,” http://www.internettutorials.net/boolean.asp. Accessed July 16, 2010.