The contemporary media world and our attitude to information are best described as a case of free fall, an inertial motion. There is a lot of information, it moves (or falls) at constant speed, now it is here, tomorrow it is gone and there are no rules determining the duration of stay. For two weeks we have been tormented with the upcoming nuclear catastrophe, but that seemed to be the maximum we could bear; then came the Libya story of which we could bear even less and soon we will be off to another story or scandal and grateful for that too.
Undoubtedly this has to do with our brains and psychology and how we process information. But what does it imply about our levels of knowledge? Ours is supposedly an information era and we live in a knowledge society. But how knowledgeable are we? The latest book on the subject, by James Gleick, is succinctly entitled The Information: A History, a Theory, A Flood (Pantheon, 2011). Following Shannon, the founder of information theory, Gleick considers information to be independent of meaning, hence also the metaphor of information as a flood.
One way to deal with information overflow is to switch off. Another is to selectively switch on and off. Scientists do this all the time when they specialize and become experts in this but not another field. Citizens do it too when they opt to be more active in single-issue movements than in politics more general. We all do it when we choose to be interested in some things but not in others. Thus, according to Jürgen Habermas, emerges the pluralist but also more anarchic model of democracy—there is no single public sphere but several distinct theatre stages, each with their own actors and audience.
Assuming these various stages are sufficiently populated and adequately connected, democracy could still work, but the inherent dangers are obvious and greater within a constantly-moving, information-driven global world. The danger, however, is not lack of stability as we are sometimes led to believe. The main danger is disinterest—inertia. We assume that the experts and audiences active on different stages are doing a ‘proper’ job, thus are happy to delegate them our power of decision. But who is to judge this, if disinterest reigns? This is the crux of the problem of societies flooded with information and lacking knowledge.
The ultimate technological dream and answer to this problem is that we will one day be able to organize all information on a chip, have that chip implanted in our body and whenever we need specific chunks we simply retrieve them. But that we can do already without the chip, still we often choose not to. Technology helps, but it alone cannot solve the problem.
Some ideas about the non-technological solutions to this problem can be found in Josiah Ober’s exciting book Democracy and Knowledge; Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton University Press, 2008). Today we tend to dismiss the Athenian example as the cradle of democracy but as no longer relevant. That might be wrong. Classical Athens appears small and homogeneous from our perspective but it was neither at the time. Its success over a significant period had to do with the design of its democratic institutions.
One such intelligent design was the creation of ‘tribes’ on non-territorial lines. The key to this system, writes Obers, was “the emergence of many bridging weak ties between members of local strong-tie networks” (p.139). The second important institutional innovation, relying on Plato, was to use ‘chance’ to select representatives, because only the chance principle could undermine the stronger systems of wealth and meritocracy. Over time this contributed to both the dissemination and growth of knowledge.
Transferred to our modern times this highlights the importance of mixed compositions of expert panels and the constant confrontation of expertise with counter-expertise as well as with citizens’ views. It might be equally sensible to re-visit our understanding of political organization in multi-ethnic, federal or post-national polities.