Information Overwhelm and the Death of Silence

As a marketer, and with my professional hat on, I'm being more than a little contentious with this one. But here goes anyway:

I read somewhere that the amount of information a person living in the Middle Ages had to digest in their whole lifetime, was about the same as is contained in one average modern daily newspaper. How anyone can deduce this, I’m not at all sure, but even if it is wildly inaccurate (and when are statistics ever wholly dependable?) it makes an interesting point.

Compared to our forbears, we are overwhelmed with information. It comes at us from every facet of life; TV, radio and the Internet, through flat screens, desktops and mobile devices. There’s a 24-hour news cycle; there are newspapers, headlines, highlights and sound bites; there are websites, data streams and news feeds, blogs, podcasts and emails; there’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and dozens of other social media channels.

That’s just the news and views – the keepy-uppy of contemporary culture. Add into the mix the battle to win our loyalty and sell, sell, sell, through advertising hoardings, posters and pop-ups, the ever increasing flood of promotional messages, ‘shares’, ‘likes’ and location-based offers, the ‘if you liked that, you’ll love this’ links, streams, trends and updates; all the time, the implied obligation to stay abreast of technology, celebrity, fashion, lifestyle and more… much, much more.

There’s so much noise; there are so many entities clamouring for our attention. But there are still only 24 hours in the day. So as we squeeze in more feeds, more news, more Tweets, blogs, emails and miscellaneous updates… what’s getting squeezed out?

Here’s what:

Quiet time…  Thinking time…  Silence

 

Do you remember those precious moments when all you would do was sit back and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee; no TV or radio blabbering in the background; not trying to keep up with your emails, or your Twitter lists, or your WordPress reader; not collating information from other people’s blogs or scouring the Internet for wise words or quirky pictures to ‘share’; not scratching your forehead for something to ‘update’ your Facebook friends about; not squeezing in a quick post because you haven’t done one for three days and you’re so afraid that people will forget you exist, de-friend or unfollow you – for the heinous crime of… inactivity.

But here’s the thing…

We’re all of us culpable. We’re victims of the tsunami of informational white noise and the clutter of surplus data and opinion. But we are perpetrators too. We who blog and Tweet and upload our thoughts, pictures or videos; we who comment and  debate on forums, upload articles to LinkedIn; we who scour the Internet for stuff to reblog, repost and re-Tweet. All of us – we’re part of the problem.

We’re all afraid that if we don’t participate, producing content, opinion (I’m aware of the irony here) and feedback, that we will be insignificant and unheard. Invisible. So we shout ever louder, trying to make our voices rise above the white noise. Only, everyone else is shouting louder too.

And marketers and writers like me have an even more acute need to be heard above the noise…

We write with the sole purpose of getting our words out there. Whether we create a story, or a brand, we naturally want to share it with people. We want to be seen and read. And – joy of joys – the advance of technology has provided us with the most perfect platform. Words are our tools of choice, and the Internet is the home of words.

So we’re all out there now, struggling to be heard. We jump up and down with our hands high, shouting ‘notice me… please notice me’. We strive to be the most resourceful, the most humorous, the most contentious, the most candid, the most unique. We try just to have something, anything, to say, even when we have no idea what to write. And when that happens, we post about the fact that we have no idea what to write. (Yes, you’ve done it, I’ve done it…), and in posting about nothing, we steal two minutes of everyone’s precious time for no legitimate benefit.

And still the volume of noise goes up and up.

So we shout louder. We blog more often, we share more frequently, we Tweet dozens of times a day – for that is what the people whose voices shout the loudest of all say we should do. We post about our thoughts and moods; we upload photographs of what we had for dinner or how pretty the moon looked last night – just for something to say.

But just as we’re doing it, so is everyone. So we’re forced into a never-ending cycle of checking, checking and checking again. What’s happening on our feeds and readers, in our in trays, our profiles and our accounts? We don’t want to miss out, get left behind, miss something fascinating that we could share, find ourselves scrolling back down miles of streamed… stuff.

And still the volume of noise goes up and up.

I wonder sometimes if aliens came from far away, and a far more advanced civilisation, what would they think as they approached Planet Earth? As they swept across the vast, silent universe towards us, when would they begin to hear the first hiss and crackle of our feverish ‘conversations’? What would they think as they drew closer and the volume soared to deafening proportions? What would they make of the incessant babble and clamour, everybody shouting, and nobody listening very much? What would they think of a society that fills its precious time so relentlessly with that babble and clamour?

What would they make of people, who, in their thirst for engagement, leave so little time and space for the purity of silence, self-reflection and contemplation?

21st May 2015

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