Information Overload Essay


How to think about ‘information overload’

Information, knowledge and power in contemporary society (2005)

This paper discusses the relationship between information, knowledge and power in contemporary society and assesses the characteristics of information in circulation and the sociocultural implications of this. In doing so, it is argued that any manifestation of ‘information overload’ can be accounted for in terms of capitalist endeavour, as a result of promoting knowledge’s status as both a commodity and a decisive force of production, centred around what Lyotard describes as ‘performativity’, essentially rationalisation of the social system (Lyotard1984:11).

There is a general consensus that ‘information and information activities’ play an increasingly greater strategic role in economic, social and political life (Webster 2002:51). This can be described as ‘informatisation’, the gradual increased prominence of information (ibid. 2002:266). According to Melody, the nature of information defines the ‘state of knowledge’ upon which all ‘social and economic processes’ are founded. In turn, these provide a basis for structuring explications of social reality (Melody 1987 pages unknown). That is, information and knowledge lie at the heart of ‘accepted social tenets’ (Wikipedia 2004:1) and ‘information itself is conditioned and structured by the social institutions and relations in which it is embedded’ (Dan Schiller 1988:41). By knowledge, in a broad sense, it is meant, ‘factual’ descriptions of reality. Whilst information can be defined as interpreted data or signals (van Dijk 1999:182,186), knowledge is appropriation of that information into a ‘field of orientation and competence’ (Stehr 1994 13-14). Knowledge has peculiar characteristics. Once produced, ‘it can be used endlessly’ and so, significantly more investment is required to produce it than to distribute and use it. Furthermore, once received, it remains with the transmitter (van Dijk 129-130).

A distinguishing feature of contemporary society is the ‘character of knowledge itself’ (Stehr 1994:66). Theoretical knowledge, that which is abstract, general and can illuminate ‘many different and varied areas of experience’ ( Bell cited in Webster 2002:53), has overshadowed practical knowledge, as ‘sources of innovation are increasingly derivative from research and development’ (ibid. 2002:52), based on accepted theoretical principles (Webster 2002:53). That is to say that societal activities prioritise theory; theory informs practice rather than vice versa (Webster 2002 b:29). This knowledge can be ‘commodified’1 as property, measured and communicated as it can be represented objectively, codified through language, writing, printing and data storage (Stehr 1994:13-14,109).

According to Lyotard,

knowledge has become the principle force of production over the last few decades [and] in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major – perhaps the major – stake in the worldwide competition for power (Lyotard 1984:5).

Lyotard contends that nation-states that once fought for territory and access to inexpensive labour and raw materials, ‘will one day fight for control of information’ (Lyotard 1984:5). In Lyotard’s typology knowledge underpins two forms of power, commercial and military, and he implies that information, knowledge and power are mutually constitutive. Mosco appears to agree, as he asserts that ‘power and commodity are inextricably linked’ (Mosco 1988:3).

Differing approaches to the study of power have a common thread, in that they are concerned with revealing factors that generate oppression and inequality (Jordan 1999:15). According to Giddens, power refers to the capacity of actors in society to fulfil the achievement of aims or the development of self-interest. Power pervades all human relationships and many conflicts are rooted in this capacity to realise ‘wishes at the expense of the wishes of others’ (Giddens 2001:696). In Weber’s discourse, power is viewed as a possession that ‘enables the possessor to force actions on others’. For Barnes, ‘power […] is a form of knowledge’ and his view centres on the notion that collectively, knowledge directly influences ‘capacity for action’ (Jordan 1999:9,14). Power can also be thought of as a process, something that is circulated through society (Foucault 1980:99), carried forth through a ‘discourse’, essentially an accepted belief system (Wikipedia 2005 a:2-3), which serves as a vehicle for the ‘specific effects of power’ (Foucault 1980:132). This implies that power and knowledge underpin each other, that is,

there is no power relation without […] knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations (Foucault cited in McGovern & Mottiar 1997:3).

In a political economy approach, Mosco asserts that ‘it is useful to think of power as a resource, as well as a form of control’. He refers to Mahon and asserts that, as a resource, power is embodied in an ‘unequal structure of representation’, where ‘market position’ is rewarded with superior status in the social system. Power as a form of control is used to retain this status against insurgencies (Mosco 1996:257).

‘[P]ower, control and interest’ are primary in Marxian analysis of capitalist endeavour and in the context of the informational realm, Herbert Schiller asks, ‘for whose benefit and under whose control will [ICT] be implemented?’ (Schiller cited in Webster 2002:127). For Schiller, these informational developments are best accounted for in grounded economic discourse, as ‘phenomena best understandable in terms of long-established and familiar market-based criteria’ (Schiller cited in Stehr 1994:12), as a reconfiguration of capitalism, described by Schiller as ‘corporate capitalism’, dominated by a handful of oligopolistic corporate institutions with ‘global’ reach (Webster 2002:128-129). The emphasis of market criteria illustrates that informational and related technological trends are ‘decisively influenced’ by the profit motive that underpins exchange in the market. A corollary is the intensification of the ‘commodification of information’, as a saleable item, similar to a tangible good (ibid. 2002:128). These corporate activities ‘require a sophisticated computer communications infrastructure’ to distribute the flow of information that facilitates the coordination and control of daily operation (ibid. 2002:130). Thus, increased information flow is derivative of corporate needs and so information has been channelled in ‘these’ particular directions rather than ‘those’ and therefore, it can be seen that capitalism is shaping information and knowledge and simultaneously information and knowledge are sustaining capitalism (ibid. 2002:129-130).

Mosco asserts that a ‘fundamental source of power in capitalist society is profit from the sale of commodities in the marketplace’, which suggests that ‘exchange’ value preponderates ‘use’ value (Mosco 1988:3). He identifies two production dimensions of commodification in the context of communication. First, he emphasises that global proliferation of ICTs, contributes to general commodification throughout the economy, as there is an expansion of information about all phases of the production cycle, including distribution and sales. Second, widespread, overarching processes of commodification, through ideas such as ‘liberalisation’, become embedded in ‘communications processes and institutions’, such that ‘communication as a social practice’ is reconfigured (Mosco 1996:142 emphasis removed).

Mosco refers to Garnham and emphasises the importance of the mass media because, as well as direct production of commodities, it also influences commodification throughout society by way of advertising. In terms of content, commodification involves transposing data into ‘marketable products’. This process rests on capital, labour and consumers and one derivative of surplus value is symbolic meaning, which ‘helps to shape consciousnesses’. This is exploited by ‘producing messages that reflect the interests of capital’ and thereby promotes capitalist discourse and associated ‘class fractions’, that is increased inequality (Mosco 1996:146-147). Schiller asserts that although audiences ‘interpret messages variously’, reiteration of these messages through all ‘cultural conduits’, diminishes an audience’s interpretative flexibility, eventually centering on a close approximation of the original, intended messages sent from the ‘commanders of the social order’ (Schiller 1989:156). These messages often promulgate a ‘denotation’ that the dominant essentially have the same ‘basic problems’ as the dominated and cannot control their destiny, thereby concealing an actuality (ibid. 1989:153). Webster refers to Herbert Schiller and asserts that, to a considerable degree, these ‘class inequalities’ not only shape distribution and access, but also the ‘capacity to generate information’ (Webster 2002:128).

So, in one sense, qualitative attributes of content seem to influence the quantities of information in circulation and this unfolds in a milieu where advances in technology and knowledge can in turn be reapplied to themselves, a virtuous circle (Castells 2000:78), which plays a vital role in the ‘maintenance and enhancement of the capitalist system’, as in terms of commodity transfer, it accelerates the process of transmission, exchange and consumption. The McLuhanism that the medium eclipses the message appears to hold true here (Gane 2003:434).

To a significant extent, these developments can account for any notion of ‘information overload’. In a microsociological context, this can be described simply as ‘receiving too much information’. Studies of such contexts often concentrate on ‘management information systems’ and organisational behaviour, studying the relationship between performance of an individual in relation to exposure to information (Eppler & Mengis 2004:326). Similarly, a macrocosm of this focuses on the ‘difference between the increase of information and knowledge on the [one] hand and their application on the other’. This difference can mean that information supply exceeds demand, which van Dijk identifies as ‘overinformation’. He refers to Schenk and asserts that information has become disempowering as a result of a supply contaminated by ‘redundant data’ (van Dijk 1999:183-184). It would appear that for there to be ‘redundant data’ or ‘information overload’, there must be a concomitant notion of ‘information underload’ or deprivation, which raises a question of what types of information fall into each category. This is problematic, as information resists ‘both definition and measurement’. Bates refers to Pool as well as Porat and Machlup and asserts that quantitative analysis has been in the form of flow and economic value and one problem is that information value is determined, as for many other commodities, by the circumstances of future use and the potential for reuse. At best, an ‘expected value’ can be aggregated by predicting an average of ‘all the possible values […,] weighted by their respective likelihood’ (Bates 1988 76-78).

Thinkers such as Shannon have postulated that an elemental feature of information is its ability to embody ‘uncertainty’ or ‘negative entropy’ (Bates 1988:76, cf. Shannon 1948). ‘ Shannon ’s hypothesis’ negates ‘semantic aspects of communication’ (Shannon 1948:1) , such that information is viewed as ‘purely functional […,] meaning is something else’ (Baudrillard 1994:79). Negative entropy refers to the ‘randomness’ of the symbolic components of a message (in which semantic meaning is encoded) (Wikipedia 2005 b:1), that is to say that the outcome of ‘ the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages’ (Shannon 1948:1). For example, in a stream of data such as:

‘t h i s s e n t e n c e is t r …’

the subsequent portion of the series is more likely to begin with ‘u e’ than ‘l s e’, although it could be ‘a d e a b l e’ or indeed any other progression (Shannon 1948:5). This uncertainty would be increased if more information were introduced into the system ( Wikipedia 2005 b:3), for example, if the number of letters in the alphabet was increased or if ‘noise’, that is to say, distortion, was introduced into the stream (Shannon 1948:13). Therefore, the ‘use of information in a system acts upon the system’ and so, as well as affecting the relationships and status of actors in a system, presumably accurate measurement is complex, if possible at all (Bates 1988:81). Semantic qualities of information would appear to complicate this further (Webster 2002:24). Baudrillard’s view conflicts with ‘ Shannon ’s hypothesis’, as he asserts that ‘we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning’, an assertion that illustrates that ‘information is directly destructive of meaning and signification’ and one that seemingly cannot be claimed in the context of Shannon ’s hypothesis (Baudrillard 1994:79).

However information is conceptualised, it can be proposed, although not easily proved, through a scanning of advanced capitalist societies, that there is an information surplus of capitalist related information and a relative decline of non-capitalist related information, that is not to say an absolute decline. It can be seen that a surplus of information is related directly and indirectly to capitalist endeavour and it is so, because knowledge has become an information commodity and simultaneously, it ‘structures the basis of commodity production itself’ (Gane 2003:434).

Gane considers the work of Lyotard and asserts that the introduction of new media technologies has problematicised the relationship between commercially related knowledge and its military counterpart, as ‘territorial’ or state powers are weakened in light of the mode of cross-border communication that digital networks enable. He asserts that the state is viewed as ‘an obstacle to immanent exchange’, a form of ‘noise’ and therefore these corporations pose a direct threat to the state (Gane 2003:435). Lyotard asserts that the basis of the ‘circulation of capital’ in contemporary society bypasses state control, to the extent that he asks ‘will the State simply be one user [of communication channels] among others?’ and so it appears that these developments shift the balance of power in favour of multinational corporations (Lyotard 1984:6).

The capacity of individuals of society at large to circulate and therefore administer power, can be addressed by consideration of Lyotard’s question ‘who will know?’ (Lyotard 1984:6). Gane interprets this to mean ‘who will know how to be in control’, if this is possible at all, and with reference to Bauman, contemplates that it also implies ‘who will have the right to know’, that is to ask, who will be allowed access and knowledge acquisition opportunities? This presents a problem, as ‘truth’2 is constructed by those who have the wealth to know (Gane 2003:435-436), that is to say that ‘whoever is the wealthiest has the best chance of being right’ (Lyotard cited in Gane 2003:436) and unfortunately, this resonates most powerfully for the poorest and least educated members of society.

Thus, what is to be known is bathed in the colours of capitalist logic, so, ‘information/ knowledge that cannot be justified in terms of efficiency and effectiveness will be downgraded or even abandoned’. For example, whereas financial information is promoted, philosophy or aesthetics become peripheral (Webster 2002:252), even when the system ‘dehumanises’ and its ‘dysfunctions […] inspire hope and lead to belief in an alternative […,] the only alternative [(presented)] is entropy, or decline’. This efficiency and effectiveness is described by Lyotard as ‘performativity’, a concept that essentially encompasses the idea of ‘optimization of the global relationship between input and output’, in other words, productivity throughout the capitalist system (Lyotard 1984:11-12). Almost all information and knowledge of social reality (and to an extent individual and biological reality) (Wikipedia 2004:1), can be seen as aligned somehow with this principle, whether it be exposure to a mind numbing and therefore controlling, media mist, a ‘mass opiate’, that in Fawtillian terms might often have been described allegorically as ‘transatlantic tripe […,] a sort of pornographic muzak’ (Cleese & Booth 1979) or consumption of a university degree, initiated not for knowledge’s sake, but as career development, that is, earnings potential (Webster 2002:253). As a result of performativity, commodification extends to the institutional spheres of ‘public education, government information, media, culture, and telecommunication’, which has led to widespread commercialisation and therefore privatisation of broadcasting, public information and postal systems for example, together with a commercialisation of the body and identity themselves, through the adornment of product advertising apparel (Mosco 1996:153).

To be sure, new media technology has enabled accelerated communication and in turn, facilitated redefinition of the ‘form and content of information and thus knowledge’. Speed of exchange has become an ‘ultimate goal’ and with this, ‘cultural production and consumption’ also speed up (Gane 2003:440). ICT plays a significant role in accelerating homogenisation of once diverse cultures (Hassan 2004:51-52), as localities become gradually detached from their cultural, geographical and historical meaning (Castells 2000:406), counterintuitively resulting in ‘fragmentation’ (Hassan 2004:51-52). As new media focus on multidirectional, specialised and diversified information, contrary to the mass media, culture becomes fragmented by ‘ideologies, values, tastes, and lifestyles’ (Castells 2000:368,405-406). However, this does not necessarily mean that there is ‘full domination of codes by a few central senders’, as the ‘new communication system’ can allow diversity, but nevertheless Castells posits that the price of this is to ‘adapt to [network] logic’ and presumably, a deductive conclusion is that this logic is a function of capitalist logic (ibid. 2000:405-406).

According to Gorz, culture is ‘schizophrenic’ in character: ‘the more we learn, the more we become helpless’. This is because growth of knowledge is inversely proportional to ‘power and autonomy of communities and individuals’. Information and knowledge employed to aspire to performativity, result in transmission of fragmented knowledge to the extent that it keeps society ‘in check and under control’ (Gorz cited in Robins and Webster 1988:69). Another form of control is surveillance, the supervision of activities of groups or individuals ‘in order to ensure compliant behaviour’ (Giddens 2001:700). In terms of commodities, surveillance of the lifecycle and use of products gathers information that can be used to bill customers or to observe their behaviour, which in turn is iterated into refining products or commodified itself (Mosco 1996:153). This information, when gathered systematically and processed on a large scale using ICTs, exemplifies that control is mediated by the ‘commercial and political exploitation of social knowledge and information’ (Robins and Webster 1988:70). Thus, according to Robins and Webster, the use of digital networks leads to a redistribution of power amongst a circuit of societal nodes, constituted as a move towards a ‘giant panoptic mechanism’ that continuously and automatically surveys the ‘inmates of society’. Their ‘somber’ analysis is illustrated by reference to Bentham who asserts that ‘whatever [‘inmates’] do is known’ and in considering redressing this balance of power towards a ‘utopia’, they assert that ‘new technologies do not provide a short cut’ and ‘if we want one we shall have to invent it ourselves’ (ibid. 1988:72).

Perhaps, the most disturbing aspect of performativity is portrayed by Lyotard in ‘The Inhuman’. Whilst Mcluhan emphasises new media technologies as ‘extensions of man’, Lyotard considers them more as ‘extensions of the capitalist market’, focusing on ‘relations of power’ (Gane 2003:432,438). Effectively, knowledge encapsulated and transceived digitally, as ‘bits’ of information, enables the mechanism of the capitalist market to penetrate the cerebral core, the ultimate nodal point of circulation at the logical periphery of the so called ‘network society’. Gane asserts that digitalisation reduces thought to the processing of information rather than ‘encouraging expression and creativity’. He continues and refers to Lyotard and asserts that technological development is not founded on emancipatory ideology, but underpinned by the principles of performativity, with a result that thought itself is rationalised 3 (ibid. 2003:440-441). The use of ICT, in its turn, results in humans becoming machine-like, ‘inhuman’ information processors, a status that is encompassed by Marx’s theory of ‘alienation’, where subjects are detached from their ‘species being’ or human nature (ibid. 2003:441).

In conclusion, it can be seen that information is increasingly important in advanced capitalist societies. Pivotal to this is a shift of emphasis from practical knowledge to theoretical knowledge, which has become a principal factor of production and simultaneously an outcome of production in the form of an information commodity. Webster refers to Schiller and correctly observes that capitalism has generated information and ICTs, which ‘extends and consolidates its relations’ (Webster 2002:128-129). ICTs promote and hasten innovation processes and the development and distribution of information and knowledge.

For Lyotard, power/knowledge serves military and commercial purposes and it appears that with liberalisation, states have relinquished power in favour of huge multinational corporations. An important source of power is derivative of commodity exchange. Deployment of ICTs promotes commodification and associated communication processes infuse into society. The mass media exemplify this and surplus value is maximised through messages which conceal capitalist dominance, a reciprocating self-interest mechanism, which in turn increases inequality as well as increasing the volume of information in circulation, leading to a surplus, which can account for any ‘information overload’, as supply exceeds demand. The nature of information means that it is difficult to define and measure. This is exacerbated by increased information or noise in a system, as this is directly proportional to the uncertainty of messages and therefore, presumably uncertainty of a whole system. However, observation of developed societies reveals that there is a relative increase in capitalist related information.

Lyotard’s ‘report on knowledge’ emphasises rationalisation or performativity, the principles of which serve to align every element of the capitalist system with efficiency and effectiveness, which in turn prioritises and sacrifices any information that is exterior to these principles. A significant proportion of surplus information is not wasteful, indeed, up to a point, it is fruitful, as it is a form of control utilised to confuse and pacify the masses. In a market system devoid of ‘altruistic concerns’ (Baldwin & Cave 1999:15), that intrinsically advances inequity and inequality, ‘rights do not flow from hardship, but from the fact that the alleviation of hardship improves the system’s performance’ (Lyotard 1984:63). This performativity can be seen to diffuse into areas of society that other principles cannot reach: instillation through family, probably. In turn, depending on position in the stratification system or quality of ‘nodal point’ (Lyotard 1984:15), this inhibits or enables an individual to ‘know’ and in a society where ‘language assumes a new importance’ (Lyotard 1984:16), knowing equates with increased potential to retain power in its circulation.

In capitalist discourse, new media relay customised messages and this increases homogenisation and fragmentation, uprooting and disorientating cultures, a disempowerment, that can be ameliorated apparently only at the cost of accord with performativity. This fragmented knowledge thus captures a society that recoils from a perhaps transitory power shift to corporations, an incumbency that is protected by control via an exploitation of knowledge through surveillance for example.

Ultimately, yes, developed societies are ‘being digital’, not through choice necessarily, not determined by technology, but determined by the ‘inhuman’ digital capitalist system that usurps the psyche, locked in by a mutual discourse of dissonant symbiosis through an ocular centric umbilical cord.

Foucault asserts that a way forward is to realign truth, a ‘condition of the formation and development of capitalism’, not by ‘changing people’s consciousnesses […] but the political, economic, institutional régime of the production of truth’ (Foucault 1980:133).

For Marx, the ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx 1970:123). According to Dan Schiller, as yet, there appears to be ‘[n]o concerted or widespread social mobilization for a democratic reconstruction’, even in the shadow that contemporary capitalism has reinforced domination and inequality through the market system. He asserts that ‘[t]he road to redress begins from this recognition’. Knowledge is power (Schiller 1999:209).


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1 Dan Schiller clarifies an important distinction between resources and commodities: he asserts that a resource has ‘potential use [...,] that is all’, whereas a commodity ‘bears the stamp of society and of history in its very core’ and argues that ‘information is socially identical to other commodities’ (Schiller 1988:33).

2 Foucault asserts that truth is a systematic ordering of ‘procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements’ (Foucault 1980:133).

3 This idea can be seen to be expressed by the popular beat combo ‘Blur’, in the affective and infectious ‘Coffee and TV’, which opens with the verse:

Do you feel like a chain store?

Practically floored,

One of many zeros,

Kicked around bored (Blur cited in blurtalk no date available).

In the context of the song, this appears to have multilayered and ambiguous meaning, an introduction to a multimodal piece that utilises a ‘text whose meanings are realized through more than one semiotic code’ (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996:183), echoing ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes 1977:145), characteristic of ‘postmodernism’. One interpretation of the verse is an apparent rationalisation of thought, the ‘commercial’ psyche, commodified, with ‘aisles’ arranged in line with capitalist logic. The second couplet can appear to express the effects of rationalisation, perhaps a breakdown of a violent ‘information society’ of ‘zeros and ones’ (classes) that feels controlled, disempowered and helpless and this manifests as a desire to return ‘home’ to a ‘safe haven’ of ‘tradition’ perhaps: ‘So give me coffee and TV […,] history’. There is a suggestion that this rationalisation permeates family life, perhaps beginning with it, ‘reproduced’ by it and ending with it. Almost every scene in the video (see below) connotes entrapment through the technique of framing (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996:181-182). Despite postmodernism’s resistance to ‘grand narratives’ (Webster 2000:230), it is ironic that the only apparent method of protesting against the ‘system’ is to be subsumed into the system of production and consumption, which raises a question as to whether such groups are ‘in it for the money’. The verse cited above may be misinterpreted, as according to Coxon, the song is ‘about England […,] football and getting beaten up for wearing the wrong colour shirt in a pub’ and thus the line ‘practically floored’ may result from this (Coxon cited in no date available). A problematisation can reveal that the ‘pub’ is analogous to ‘society’ and ‘home’ to ‘tradition’ or ‘safety’. It is unclear how these meanings might be definitely resolved with the ‘NME Premier’ ( 2000:1-3) and ‘MTV Europe’ award winning video of 1999; the protagonist is a computer animated milk carton, perhaps the Shakespearian ‘milk of human kindness’ or maybe the ‘Milk cup’, and the video ‘ chronicles […] his quest to find the missing kid pictured on its side’ (Miller 2004:1). The video is included here, on a CD or alternatively, available from: