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February 26, 2004

Anne Dalke (English) and Ted Wong (Biology)
"Information Overload: Turning it Off/Turning it On"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Drawing on earlier conversations led by Katherine Rowe on "What Is Information?" and by Scott Silverman on "What's So Informative About Information?" Ted and Anne invited a discussion about a particular local application--the information overload each of us experiences every time we check our e-mail or turn on the cable-box:

  • Can you get too much information?
  • Do you want spam filtered for you?
  • If so, by a person or by a computer program?
  • Do you want to be able to broadcast e-mail announcements?
  • Do you want information pushed at you, or do you want to pull it to you?
  • Do you want the choice to turn off selected information streams, even if it limits others' ability to tell you things you might want to know? (Or hampers their ability to tell you what they want you to know?)
  • How much personal freedom do you have to decide?
  • How much may your freedom infringe on that of others?
Ted began the conversation by suggesting "two extremes": no filtering (we get everything and have all the power to delete what we receive) and "nothing comes through": we have to go get everything we want. The discussion of an individual's rights to "push stuff at others" vs. "their right to suppress your right to do so" quickly shifted to a consideration of what it means for us to exist in groups. What happens when we think in terms of community values, rather than individual rights? Who should bear the cost of the flow of information? Does the sender or the receiver have to pay? Why are we excised about information overload, given the historical context in which we "long ago" gave up control of what is pushed at us (commercials, advertisements, junk mail, phone solicitations)? Is it because we thought, at first, that this new technology was set up to give us control--and we have discovered that it does not? Do we want to set group guidelines for sorting out what we all receive? Should individuals be allowed to set their own limits on information? None of us wanted others to filter the stories coming to us; and few of us wanted to have ourselves be "put in a category" which others would filter out. There was some interesting discussion about what role alienation plays in these decisions, and the possibility that personal relationships are being de-valued or polluted by mass e-mailings.

One abiding question seemed to be whether we want to carry already existing social rules over to our internet usage, or whether our experiences on the internet might alter existing laws of censorship. In the "wild west" where we find ourselves now, this "pre-martial," "pre-law" state, things that both individuals and groups have found mutually taboo (such as levels of comfort with sexual imagery) are being altered. It's very important, then, to get a sense of community preferences. Does letting all information through create uncomfortable work spaces? Or is it healthy for a culture to "know what people are doing" --both activities which distress us (such as the work of hate groups, or child pornography), and new developments which may delight or interest us (such as the large number of events sponsored by the Centers, which cross disciplinary boundaries, and may be of interest to a wide variety of people on campus)?

If Information Services identifies "spam" before it reaches individual mailboxes, it will inevitably mis-identify some mail. In order not to limit freedom of choice, it does not now apply such filters; viruses which are detected are simply quarantined. One real shift, with the development of the internet, is that the cost barrier to transmission is much lower on web: storage costs are less than when everything was archived in a library, and in that way the playing field has equalized. But there may be increasing costs of receiving so much information. Perhaps it is the job of information services to function less as an editor for the community, than to explain--to those who are troubled by their full in-boxes--how to be their own gatekeepers. Also at question was what counts as "official" (i.e.: who/what IS Bryn Mawr)? Who do messages appear to come from, and who controls access to various listervs?

No one in attendance wanted to be denied access to messages, however spam-like they might be--but there was also a strong interest expressed in having more options for managing the flow. We ended with the acknowledgement, however, that we are still trying to "manage what we find problematic," not really posing, or answering, the larger social question of what we, as a group, find sacred, and what we find profane.

Next Thursday, March 4, Kim Cassidy of the Psychology Department will discuss "Information Processing: How Psychology Approaches Knowledge." Kim will briefly illustrate one approach that psychologists use to answer questions by describing her research on young children's understanding of others' desires. She hopes that we can then discuss problems (and maybe solutions) that her "brand" of information processing approach encounters when solving a harder problem: do young children understand wicked desires?

Please join us for this discussion, or for the conversation continuing on-line.

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