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With Political Information, a Modern Embarrassment of Riches

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As a political blogger and commentator, I try my best to stay up-to-the-minute with the most current campaign news. Working with the 24-hour television news format and instantaneous blogging platforms, it's easy to get anxious that the information I have may be stale or incomplete. After all, I've been taught that information is the currency of our political economy, and that a well-informed citizenry is a prerequisite for a fully functioning democracy.

But then I try to put this anxiety in perspective. In an era of televised election coverage, it's easy to forget that only 150 years ago, it took the Pony Express nearly two weeks to inform residents of the West Coast that Abraham Lincoln had been elected their president.

With information as abundant and instantaneous as it is, what's valuable nowadays is the ability to distill that information and interpret it.

We've essentially created an environment where our media, which once adapted to us, are now compelling us to adapt to them. Our media that once helped us solve the problem of information scarcity are now creating new problems of information overload, and proposing even more media to help us solve them.

Throughout history, our species has invented successive communication technologies to help us confront an age-old problem: the scarcity and slowness of information. Before looking at how today's information overload affects politics, let's quickly look back at how we've overcome the problem of information underload: The printing press and moveable type allowed knowledge to spread across communities, classes and countries. Modern books, increasingly common in the 17th century, precipitated a system of public education, which would serve to classify and distribute knowledge.

The first newspaper article to use Samuel Morse's telegraph to aid its reporting -- involving a vote taken by the House of Representatives just minutes before the newspaper went to print -- appeared in The Baltimore Patriot, and concluded: "[The telegraph] is indeed the annihilation of space." Before the telegraph, information traveled at the speed of the fastest locomotive or horseback rider. Today, we've extended 800 miles of fiber-optic cable between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and New York Stock Exchange (costing $300 million) so we might make trading times three milliseconds more efficient.

Instead of inventing tools to help our information keep up with us, we're now inventing tools to keep up with our information.

Writing in "Media Perspectives for the 21st Century," political scientist Shanto Iyengar observes that, when it comes to an informed electorate, the new culture of ubiquitous political information is both a blessing and a curse. He writes:

"The rapid diffusion of new media has made available a wide range of media choices, providing much greater variability in the content of available information. On the one hand, the attentive citizen can -- with minimal effort -- access newspapers, radio and television stations the world over. On the other hand, the typical citizen -- who is relatively uninterested in politics -- can avoid news programming altogether by tuning into ESPN or the Food Network. ... In any given society, the knowledge gap is mainly a reflection of differing levels of demand for information ... under conditions of enhanced consumer choice, the knowledge gap between more and less motivated citizen widens."

In short, when it comes to the richness of political knowledge, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

Iyengar's analysis links our overload of information to our overload of options from which we consume that information. This is instructive since the primary source of information overload is, after all, channel proliferation. It's not as though there's more information on each television channel or within each newspaper. Instead, new television (and Internet video) channels, new niche magazines, and new blogs and vlogs have emerged that are competing within a finite market -- an increased supply of information competing for a limited demand of our attention.

But the changing nature of information consumption itself is also implicated, especially when considering newer media technologies like the web. In his revelatory book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr offers a convincing amount of neurological and social scientific evidence in making the claim that "the Net's cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively."

If this is the case, what are the consequences for political knowledge, opinion and discourse?

I might argue that the comment threads on most political blogs would provide anecdotal evidence that our knowledge and discourse is eroding. But I'd know you'll likely provide thoughts in the comment thread below that would negate this. Won't you?

Note: This article originally appeared on the MediaShift blog of PBS.org.