The Fracture

I keep thinking about coherence, in the context of modern media consumption.

Whatever you think about the editorial side of "new media" - most recently centered on the debate around fake news, and whether sites like Facebook have a duty to guard against it - I think there is a more fundamental topic that merits discussion: the sheer inundation of digital news, and its effect on our collective ability to converse with one another.

Michael Stonebraker, perhaps the most influential living computer scientist within the realm of data storage and processing, has famously stated that "big data" is at least three separate problems.  While he framed these delineations in the context of designing data systems, I've found them to be useful lenses through which to examine the media inundation.

He dubs the first problem "Big Velocity"; i.e, the increasing rate of inbound data that needs to be processed by a given system.  Applied to the premise, we see this problem driven by the increasing dominance of mobile-tuned media, where the speed of news (loosely defined) coming at an individual today ranges from excessive to alarming.  Many of us wake up to push notifications from CNN, Fox, Bloomberg, and endless other news sites; throughout the day we get stories pouring in from Facebook, Twitter, along with the dedicated news sites (unless you've wisely pruned your notifications); and even into the night, as the stream of fresh stories seems to crest, recaps and editorials seamlessly take over. 

Stonebraker identifies the second problem as "Big Volume"; or plainly put: the data we need to deal with is getting larger in size.  In the world of data systems, this necessitates the design of new software that is capable of operating over large quantities of data - irrespective of the velocity that they might be growing.  With regard to media consumption, this references our inability to fully process the pile of information that accumulates each day.  Sure - we skim the first few paragraphs of an eye-catching article; glance through our Twitter and Facebook timelines for the summarized bits above the fold.  Or, if you're like me, you queue up the more interesting articles for later reading, using Instapaper or Pocket...only to have to purge them months later, in a cathartic act of literary bankruptcy. 

The third problem is "Big Variety"; the number of distinct sources of information isn't simply increasing - but is growing at an accelerating rate.  Anyone that claims to provide data integration technology (or services) is trying to address some form of this problem.  Such efforts usually entail reconciling heterogeneous data sources into a common format, so that the integrated information can be leveraged in some way.  It's now a banality to talk about the explosion of variety in news media; where once ABC, CBS, and NBC reigned as a triumvirate, there is now a sprawling panoply of digital outlets - all competing for consumer attention on a much flatter playing field. 

Most compelling attempts to integrate the media firehose are constrained by category.  You can visit Techmeme for a roundup of tech news; Politico for political news; Hypebeast for fashion news; and so on.  Services that aim to provide broader integration, like Google News or The Huffington Post, tend to so at the expense of coherence.  (I trust these sites to highlight the most "important" story or two of the day; but beyond that it's cross-category noise.)

Consequently, there is no real integration.  The onus is on each consumer to pick from the buffet of media services (each curating content in a bespoke manner), and then decide how to triage attention among them.  Even for folks that predominantly rely on Facebook for information, manual feedback drives what content is surfaced; each person chooses what friends remain visible in their feed, what pages they like, and what articles they click on. 

The net result is that each consumer is experiencing their own bespoke form of media inundation.  Considering the volume and velocity with which content is pushed through digital information channels, the cause for concern becomes clear.  Post-election, the alarm around fake news (justified as it might be) is really a proxy concern for this accelerating balkanization in media consumption.  What happens to our collective ability to debate societal issues and assemble consensus, when every person is absorbing a custom blend of fact and fiction?

I think about a recent comment that President Obama made, when Bill Maher asked him about the prevalence of "bubble thinking" that hinges on misinformation.  Obama paused, and said that at a certain point, strengthened tribal identities give way to "interpretation through symbols" rather than reason.

I sincerely hope that the legacy of the information age - built atop science and reason - does not include the widespread erosion of consensus reality, in favor of fractured and self-reinforcing individual realities.  Societal progress, quite literally, depends on our continued ability to reason with one another.