Our diminishing scope of context
If you are reading this, congratulate yourself. If you are reading this while holding a newspaper, you deserve an extra pat on the back. Why? Because you are part of a dwindling population that takes the time and effort to understand the context of current events.
In the past, we thoughtfully consumed our news like sipping nectar through a straw. Today, we are forced to swallow information from a fire hose. As a result, information is not only being compressed, but also oversimplified - context be damned. Foreigners criticize Koreans for being non-critical consumers and purveyors of information. The criticism commonly blames the education systems for emphasizing rote learning with minimal exploration of the greater context of dictated “facts.”
But the West is consuming information increasingly similar to Koreans and other Asians. In other words, we consume information and formulate our opinions more and more from 42-character or even less information inputs. Which explains, in part, why newspapers are on the verge of extinction.
You may think I am exaggerating this concern, but consider this. How do your children get their information these days? By reading books and newspapers - or do they overwhelming rely on their smartphone and other mobile devices?
Let’s graph a bell-shaped curve of this phenomenon of contextual information absorption. The Y-axis represents contextual information and the X-axis represents time, starting 500 years ago.
A half millennium ago, few books are in circulation and read only by the elite. So our graph’s line starts very low in the left-hand corner. Over time, books become cheaper, literacy rates rise and large numbers of people begin reading. It’s about this time newspapers appear. Originally they are relatively expensive, consisting of a few pages of fine type set due to the cost of paper. When cheap newsprint paper is invented, newspapers increase in size and circulation. All of this forces our graph’s line to form most of the first half of the bell curve.
With the beginning of the 20th century, magazines and newspapers continue to expand in quality, quantity and circulation. But there is a now a new medium, radio, which offers near-real time news but lacks the full context found in printed media. When television news first appears, TV news programs add visual information. Arguably, we are at the top of the bell curve.
Our bell curve begins to dip with the advent of cable television. Prior to then, television channel selection is limited, forcing viewers to sit through half-hour general news programs each evening. But with cable channel options, watching in-depth news programs or even news summaries becomes more of an option.
Our graph’s curve plummets with the introduction of the Internet to the home. Most people find the medium more appealing as entertainment. And when Internet news is accessed, viewers make it clear to online editors they want their news to be more concise, viewed on single Web pages.
Next comes the advent of smartphones with their small screens and their users reluctantly scrolling down to read the full news reports. News providers quickly realize that to increase readership, they must further reduce news to “just the facts.” In other words, context was - and continues to be - sacrificed. In doing so, the world’s populations are being networked in real time while being kept superficially informed.
A photographer’s choice of lenses, wide angle or telephoto, adds or subtracts the context surround the image’s subject. While a tightly cropped image may make for a superior photo, the same photo risks misinforming the viewer by excluding surrounding elements. The same may be said of online editors when they delete contextual information.
So, with our chart’s right-hand corner representing today, we are now back at the bottom of the Y-axis.
But there is much more in play than small information nuggets replacing fuller news coverage. There is the problematic combo of Big Data and personal assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, on our mobile devices. We train our electronic personal assistants to our preferences and interests. In turn, they anticipate information that we find valuable and pull data from the Web onto our mobile devices.
Today, information is coming from Big Data’s virtual cosmos of databases that are increasingly sharing information among themselves. So what’s the problem?
As our personal assistants become smarter and more sophisticated, we naturally become reliant upon them for making decisions and forming opinions. All of this is happening without putting information into its context, and thereby allowing us to interrogate these messages with critical minds.
Large organizations are already manipulating shared databases, such as “pushing” corporate marketing messages over the Internet. Conceivably, governments may be manipulating public opinion by pushing propaganda into our mobile devices. Similar tactics are commonplace today in offline media, but we still can discern such information within its context with a critical eye. But that may not easily be the case in the future as we increasingly rely on mobile technology.
The above scenario is almost inevitable. It’s therefore incumbent for us to support news sources that provide contextual information while educating our children to the issues surrounding “sound-byte” portrayals of our world. Without doing so, we could very well end up losing much of our freedom.
*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and the author of two books, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”