Too much technology: Was Obama right?

“And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”

US President Barack Obama spoke these words at a graduation speech to the Hampton University class of 2010. It only took a day for the World Wide Web to erupt, in typical hubris, with criticisms of the president for being old-fashioned and neo-Luddite; for succumbing to technophobia in a world where movements are brought to life and struck down on the Internet and where Facebook and Twitter control global news cycles. For the most part, the negative reactions are plausible. Xbox and Playstation aren’t necessarily information gathering tools, and iPods are primarily for music. It’s true that the criticisms against the information overload aren’t unique and can be used across history for any form of mass media. It’s also true that maybe information as distraction isn’t a purely evil creature. However, these critiques are all missing the point.

The Internet is changing. What once used to be a manageable construct of abstract logical connections between PCs across the globe has become more like a vast repository of data about everybody and anything, accessible to all who are looking, and at a very reasonable cost. This was started by the Internet phenomenon the marketing types like to call Web 2.0. Web 2.0 was when the Internet became open to expansion and modification by the common user. Websites were built on user input and thrived on the amount of data collected instead of the quality. The business model that Google popularized, focusing on traffic and clicks rather than quality of content, became the de facto modus operandi for profit-seeking web startups. What transpired was astronomical growth in the sheer amount of readily accessible, searchable, and aggregated data, and that data continues to grow exponentially. A report put out by market-research firm IDT in 2008 highlights the amount of data in existence.

The idea of information overload is a very real one. There comes a point where the amount of data flooding into our capable but fallible minds becomes too much to handle. We may not have gotten to that point yet, but some would argue that we reached that point generations ago. Oscar Wilde once said “It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.” And that was long before Twitter. There is a point where the law of diminishing returns comes into play, where the amount of usefulness you get out of data is no longer proportional to the amount of data to be had. If the Internet is only going to get bigger, and the availability of data connections is only going to grow, and if the Web 2.0 platform is becoming a detriment to the information society, where do we go next?

President Obama’s critique of the information age as it stands is simply a rephrasing of the above question.  In a world where we are overwhelmed with data, and devices with which to access that data, how are we going to be able to filter through the data efficiently enough to counteract the law of diminishing returns? Information is great, but too much information is ultimately counterproductive. The answer to this question is that the internet will evolve into Web 3.0. Just like all versions of mass media before it, the Internet will ultimately adapt and shape itself in a way that using it will be productive and profitable.

Web 3.0 will be all about filtration. Connectivity is at a point where we can be constantly connected to an ever-flowing and ever-growing body of information. The activity of “surfing the web” has now become a passive event of data flow. The connected person simply does nothing and the information still flows. The only way to effectively use this flow of data is by constantly filtering and making educated opinions on all the information being thrown at you. The startups of Web 3.0 will be all about data filtration services. The companies that thrive will flourish based on their ability to consistently pluck out the information you need from the exponentially growing body of chaff data.

In criticizing Obama’s comments, many aren’t reading the rest of the speech. In fact, the very next sentence pretty much brings home the point concerning the responsibility we, as educated users of mass media, have to ourselves and to the entire digital world.

“Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history.  We can't stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them.  And education is what can allow us to do so.  It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time.”

He was never criticizing the digital population for being too connected. He was pointing out the dangers of the unfiltered and unstructured Internet that many people depend on for their information needs. He was bemoaning the ability of our current systems to handle the flow of information efficiently. The message President Obama was trying to impart to the graduates of Hampton University Class of 2010 was not one of rear-facing nostalgia, but one of forward-facing progress. He asks how we’re going to achieve efficiency with the new Internet, and the answer is clear. We adapt, and Web 3.0 is born.

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