The Horror of Abundance

Last Updated Sep 24, 2009 4:54 PM EDT

An education "expert" hired by Pearson finds that students who rely on web searches rather than Pearson's textbooks "are woefully inadequate when it comes to processing real information they need." Barack Obama complains that his healthcare reforms have stalled because there's been too much "misinformation" circulating over the last few months. Columnists at traditional newspapers warn the public about the dangers of relying on the blogosphere, rather than professional journalists.

The message from the gatekeepers of knowledge is the same: there is now too much information online and your Average Joe just can't handle it.

It's not like consumers seem to care, though. Online at least, they've consistently chosen the almost-good-enough free option over paying for the professional version. Nevertheless, many professionals who suddenly see their economic self-interest threatened by this revolution keep arguing that we should care and pony up for the real deal. And if we don't, society will suffer. Without facts from Pearson, tomorrow's firefighters won't be able to tell left from right. Without the Washington Post, we could end up with a Palin presidency.
In many ways, I am sympathetic to these arguments. Take the media, as the most obvious case. Back when there were only a few media outlets for each region, the public could at least argue over the same set of facts. Now one can get information solely from the endless feedback loop of partisan news sources. Keith Olberman fans and Rush Limbaugh disciples might as well live on other planets.

But I am not so sure that the abundance of the web is causing this problem. Perhaps the student who was too lazy to check whether 2+2 really equals 5 would have probably failed his math test, with our without a Pearson text book. Maybe hardcore blog fanatics from the Left or the Right aren't the type that can be persuaded to check opposing viewpoints, no matter how many media choices they have.

At the end of the day, I am an optimist who believes the web is more or less self-correcting and that most people can process a lot of information without the paid guidance of the gatekeepers. But I do concede that it just takes one misinformed loon to cause a lot of damage. Please share where you stand in the comments section below.

  • Stefan Deeran

    Stefan Deeran helps environmental nonprofits and green businesses develop and execute their new media campaigns. He also publishes The Exception magazine, a nonpartisan news platform serving his home state of Maine. You can follow him on Twitter @RStefanDeeran or via Facebook.