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Opinions, fully formed, via the Internet

Horse with blindersAs information consumers we have a growing problem. Our marvelous technology—and it is truly marvelous—is too good at only feeding us the information we want to consume. Even as we have 24/7 access to whatever information we want, we also have the tools to make what we see precisely, and narrowly, what we want to see, and nothing more. But that's terrible environmental scanning (the process we use to really keep up with what's going on).

In the old days, the editors of newspapers, magazines, and broadcast news served us up what we wanted to know, e.g. the score from last night’s game, or who Liz Taylor was marrying, and what they saw as what we needed to know; what the town council had done, why we should vaccinate our children, and so on.
 
But I can now arrange to get my news and information from specific and narrow sources. I can consume just what I want, and what I already agree with. I can fine tune that flow of information to ensure that I don’t “waste my time” with reading things I don’t agree with. It’s now easier than ever to be like Sinclair Lewis’ George Babbitt: “Neither the Advocate-Times, the Evening Advocate, nor the Bulletin of the Zenith Chamber of Commerce had ever had an editorial on the matter, and until one of them had spoken he found it hard to form an original opinion.”  
 
There is much that is terrific about this information power we now have. But with the power comes two big problems for everyone, and certainly for those of us trying to understand a changing world and consciously shape the future:
 
1). Often, the information sources we choose have dropped all pretense that they will show the other side of the story—they are partisan in whatever realm they play: politics or lifestyles, for example. And they also, for editorial or economic reasons, often fail to give the full context for the story. We don't get enough information and context to truly evaluate what we are seeing. That means we are even less likely to examine our own assumptions and consider how/why we might change our minds about an issue. This is true of some television news and opinion shows, lots of bloggers, and lots of newsletters and magazines.
 
2). What would seem to be the opposite case, the tendency of some media organizations to always put opposing view in front of us, too often does not work the way it is supposed to. Instead of a balanced discussion that informs us, we get at best a strong dialog on the partisan battle, and who is winning and who is losing. We don’t get the views of each side, elaborated. We get the puffery and trash talk you might see in the lead up to a prize fight. The writer goes and gets two "voices" to take sides, rather than doing the journalist work of exploring different points of view. 
 
As technology evolves, these problems may become even more acute. We need to watch ourselves closely, and try to see what is happening in our information consumption, and, most likely, what we can do to compensate. We need a broader perspective on our world than news feeds such as RSS, watching a partisan cable news channel, or reading narrowly-focused newsletters might bring us.
 
The same technology can offer a broader perspective—if we allow it to. It’s time to build a habit of opening up some channels for the ideas and information from more diverse sources. Some of my earlier advice on doing this can be found at these posts:
 
 
 
And the special feature of this blog, Environmental Scanning 2.0, offers a number of strategies. 
 
Image: Alex E Proimos, via Flickr, cc license
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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Cindy Frewen Wuellner May 5, 2010, 10:13 am

    John:
    Good thoughts, agree entirely. saw a report that Congress for the first time has no overlapping moderates. The most moderate GOP members are right of the most moderate Dems. the center lost its convergence, what little there ever might have been. The fault in part of the primary system. also of the bifurcated media, as you say.
    Yet I also read that we see more POV's now than when we consumed traditional media only.
    As you say, it's available. We have to make a point of consuming a variety, not just folks that agree with us. We can see it on twitter, yes? I get comments from all POV's, esp on green tweets, and try to reason w/ them as best I can in 140 chars.!
    Cindy @urbanverse

I'd love to hear your thoughts