Communication in the Information Age

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Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 heralded the start of mass communication – for the first time, text could be reproduced quickly and inexpensively for a large audience. Of course, very few people could read in those days and many authorities were against it, fearing the impact of mass uncontrolled communication on their rule, so it took a few hundred years for this to spread.

The introduction of broadcast radio from 1920 started to spread information even more quickly and widely, marking a significant jump in the speed of communication.

But it was the Information Age which has really accelerated global communication.  Widely accepted to have started in the 1970s with the advent of the microprocessor, it took the introduction of the Internet Browser in the early 1990s for the Information Age to really become as integral to life as it is today.

And yet, it seems, the Information Age is just a quicker way to spread the same sort of information as before. Certainly our main sources of news seemed to have missed the point – news bulletins rely on “sound bites” or their video equivalents to relay information with the result that this is often inaccurate or, at best, unbalanced. Newspapers, too, have not really worked out how to embrace the digital age fully – you either get print (almost as in 1440, albeit more quickly), or the same articles available online, missing the opportunity to have summaries of stories and the ability to drill down for more information.

This is the key – we’re bombarded with information from multiple channels but have not developed the tools to effectively sift it. Long messages are often ignored as we don’t have time for them, while short messages are frequently taken out of context missing the real point that was being made. What’s needed is the ability to capture the essence of a point in a short burst and then enable people to get more information as they require it – almost an inside-out onion, with successive layers giving more and more detail.

Twitter is a great example of the modern communication paradigm – 140 characters to get the basic message across, including a link to more detail, which you can access if you wish. That more detailed message, in turn, could have links to other sources for even more information, and so on…

Nowhere, perhaps, is this communication problem more evident than in politics. There’s no argument with the fact that the UK, like many other countries globally, has woefully overspent and has to completely revisit its bloated public sector spending (how can a majority of the workforce be civil servants – effectively paid for by the minority?).  And yet it, like so many others, is facing widespread revolt at the prospect – look at the pension reform issue, for example…

Why?

Primarily because the government is incapable of effective communication. White papers, government statements and debates are far too long and not suitable for the news media or the viewing/listening/reading public, so people simply don’t understand the issues. I absolutely believe that the vast majority of people are decent, willing to work hard to get ahead and happy to help those less fortunate (but NOT those that are not prepared to help themselves).

But, for as long as governments cannot get the message out in a way that the media can carry without distortion and people can understand in just seconds, they will be unable to implement the changes that are needed, worsening the financial state of their countries, prolonging the agony and the economic downturn.

It’s time to turn traditional communication on its head and embrace “the 140 character world.”

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6 responses to “Communication in the Information Age

  1. Excellent, and very relevant, post. Thanks for writing.

  2. I’ve been looking into the “firehose” of information that is now possible. eMail, RSS, TV, even published scientific papers… There’s so much. A lot of it looks interesting but when you scratch the surface it’s often wrong, essentially lies.

    To cut to the scary end of things. I was recently concerned about accuracy of medical research. The things which might influence your doctor. (Though as I discovered doctors are well aware that a lot of the published peer reviewed research is bunkum.)

    I found a researcher, very popular at medical conferences, who concentrates on the issue. He seems to get about a thousand invitations to talk each year, so doctors are aware. His findings are pretty damning in my view. In some medical fields 80% or so of results are bunkum. (Of the most respected papers somewhere between 30 and 50% are also untrue!) (In other words the truth is the opposite of what is published.)

    There’s some coverage at http://j.mp/lIgtuA.

    The Internet has great power for good and bad. The bad is that it’s way too easy to publish. A lot of material gets out there where the brain has not been engaged. Tweets are some of the worst. (There’s some interesting research which indicates that the Internet is not a passive force in this. It’s use can make people measurably less productive and “dumber”! I’ve noticed evidence for that.)

    The power for good is that technology can potentially help you screen out the
    “mental poison” to some degree.

    Different press here and different politicians, but they are part of the problem. I don’t have a lot of time but every now and then I see reports that show criminal ignorance in news reports, so I dig a bit deeper. (Fukushima, Syria, AF 447, RR engine “uncontained failure”, Beslan seige come to mind.) In every case they have failed to understand some basics, and cast the news wrongly. Listening to and believing them could make you dumber and steer you away from reality.

    Politicians always seem to lie and use weasel words. It’s their job, at least to their minds. A recent WikiLeaks gave a refreshing glimpse. These guys aren’t as utterly stupid as their public announcements make them seem. Some actually have a firm grip on reality. Trouble is the press, that I see, mostly regurgitates the public drivel.

    (Give the media their due though. Their articles are often untouched by their own minds, it’s just regurginews from the news wires! Many of them are also living in fear, as the old ways of getting paid fade away!)

    So agreed it’s bad. My answer is to take charge, where I can, and continually remember that even 80% of peer reviewed research can be wrong.

    Find your own acceptable sources.

    • You’re absolutely right, Mike, that one should take charge and not accept reports/statements from the media and politicians at face value. The problem is that the vast majority of people do not dig deeper and simply accept the headlines/sound bites as received.

      Politicians aren’t at all stupid – but some are far better communicators than others (Blair v. Cameron springs to mind – both highly intelligent, but the former was a master of the brief message).

      The media is, in the main, lazy. Yes, much is – as you say – simply regurgitated from the news wires, but why don’t the journalists putting the story on the news wires ensure its accuracy before publishing?

      What’s needed is a much clearer sense of responsibility by those making, writing and editing the news to ensure the readin/listening/viewing public is given accurate information in a way they can understand. Tough in this era of generally declining standards at school, but necessary,

  3. Guy, it boils down to the fact that the vast majority of people are not able to simplyfy a subject and still have major impact. Always have been like that and always will be.

    Instead people complicate issues to the extent that they become difficult to comprehend. The result is that what they are trying to say is lost. Add to that that their texts are far too long and hence get ignored and it results in a failure of information.

    Probably the biggest problem in this respect is that all people believe they can write and are good communicators. And if you tell them they are not, they get upset and defensive.

    • I agree with that Catarina. However, the Government (and many others) need to ensure they employ the people that CAN communicate in the right way, or risk serious misunderstanding.

      It’s also incumbent on the news media to ensure they are capturing the story accurately in the way it is meant to be told, and relaying it. As professional journalists they should certainly have the ability to do so – but generally don’t.

      Those that provide or transmit the information should be in step with those receiving it…

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