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March 22, 2010
Paul Asay
The Best Article You May Never Actually Read

The Best Article You May Never Actually Read

Tyrant, thy name is Paradox.

We can't seem to get rid of Paradox. And, whenever we try, it shows up again. We look for ways to work less, so we modernize our jobs and create computers, and thus work ever longer in our modernized, computerized cubicles. We lament our lack of relationships, so we invent cell phones and texting and Facebook so we need never be without our friends, and yet many of us feel more isolated. We're obsessed with thinness but grow ever more obese. We decry intolerance, and become ever more intolerant.

Paradox runs and rules modern society as surely as oil and the Internet do, fueled by good intentions and unintended consequences. It manipulates and meddles—often unseen and only dimly felt—in culture's homes and offices, on our iPods and TV screens.

And Paradox, bitter and brutal, is why we have more informational outlets than ever, but seem to be ever less informed.

Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock
The affluence of our age has spoiled us. Most of us don't sweat what or whether we'll eat. Most of us don't struggle to find shelter for the night. These were things our forebears worried about constantly. We instead tend to worry whether we'll have enough cash to build a new deck this summer, or if our credit card has enough free space to buy that nifty big-screen TV. If we need something, we buy it. If we want something, we tend to buy that, too.

Despite our material wealth, though, we've never been able to buy ourselves more time. Each of us, from the mom at the local shelter to the CEO of Megalomania-Mart, gets just 24 hours in a day, seven days a week. And that, for many of us, feels a bit like a nefarious al-Qaeda plot. Why is it that a person who has five kids and two jobs gets the same amount of time each day as the twentysomething slacker who rarely leaves his parents' basement? Seems like there oughta be a law or something.

Alas, time doesn't work that way. And since we can't buy more of it, the best we can do is make good use of what little we have.

There's nothing new in this, of course. The wheel was a time-saving device. The same can be said of the Gutenberg printing press, the steam engine, the cotton gin and all the other gadgets you dimly remember studying in middle school history.

But time takes on a new dimension in modern society, with its fast-forward pace and all of its bewildering choices and distractions—made possible by all those time-saving devices I just mentioned. Now we don't just need to plant and harvest seeds while nurturing relationships with our wives and children. We also need to keep up with current events, stay abreast of water cooler talk and plot the course of our fantasy football teams. We've got to know something about health care, Iraq, American Idol and the Balloon Boy. We'd be amiss not to familiarize ourselves with Bernie Madoff, Kim Kardashian, Elin Nordegren, Christian the Lion and a thousand others—because if we didn't, someone might accuse us of being unintelligent, backwards, a stick in the mud, under-informed.

So. Cue the aggregate.

News … Now New and Improved!
Aggregators—services that gather information from different sources and dispense it in bite-sized globs—have been around as long as, well, the printing press. Newspapers were perhaps our first aggregator: Their stories were short and simple—and the most important ones were considerately packaged together on the front page, ready-made for a quick read. For a century or more, folks who regularly read their local paper thought themselves fairly well informed. Folks who read their local paper and The New York Times, too, thought they might as well run for president.

But the format had its weaknesses. Naturally, the front page consisted of what the editors thought you should read—not necessarily what you wanted to read, or what you knew would be discussed in the office cafeteria that afternoon. Sure, in the early 1970s, the papers would bombard you with all you could stomach about Watergate and Vietnam. But what if you wanted to memorize Johnny Carson's latest monologue? Or hear about Sonny and Cher's marriage problems? Or the hockey score from Ottawa? In those situations the local paper—unless you lived in Ottawa—wasn't much help. The evening news? Not much better. We longed for more.

The seeds of the thoroughly modern aggregator may well have been planted by ESPN's SportsCenter, way back in 1979. It created the template most aggregators still use today, combining quick-hit information and light, snarky commentary with (often) someone else's footage of the Ottawa hockey game. Even casual sports fans could get a CliffsNotes version—complete with highlights, commentary, interviews and behind-the-scenes news—in the space of a few minutes instead of spending three hours actually watching the game.

Other aggregate shows followed. E! Entertainment Television's Talk Soup (now The Talk) launched in 1991, gathering and disseminating buzz-worthy bits from TV's reality and talk shows in a half-hour package. G4's Attack of the Show recaps geek news and viral videos while the hosts bat around clever asides. Even Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report rely a great deal on the aggregation model. They, like the newspapers of old, take the day's biggest headlines and news events, and push them to the top of the show, giving viewers the most important news in 10 minutes even as they lampoon that very same news.

But it's the Internet, with its bewildering reach and instantaneous access, that's proved to be the ideal domain of aggregators. Why restrict yourself to news and commentary from one newspaper when you can choose the best from a whole nation of them? And for free?

What online aggregation looks like runs the gamut. Some sites, like Google News, do their aggregation via code-based algorithms, and run without an apparent agenda—other than presenting users with stories that are both popular across the whole Internet and that you personally might like based on your own surfing habits. Others, from the The Huffington Post to Drudge Report, come with some original content and their own built-in biases tagged on for emphasis.

It's gotten to the point where many people rely entirely on aggregation services for their news, sports and cultural updates. And, in many ways, it makes sense. With all the information you need, or think you need, right at your fingertips, there's little need to go anywhere else. It saves time and we're all so much better informed. Right?

Well …

Aggregators have more than a few detractors.

Too-Much-Information Age
First, you've got the content generators themselves—newspapers, television shows and the like—that spend millions creating the content you see aggregators use, most often without paying for it. Newspapers have perhaps been hit the hardest, and one has to wonder, If the nation's papers go under, what will online aggregators use to fill their sites?

Another problem is the nature of many aggregators. It's been said that people under the age of 25 get most of their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, respectively. And these two comedy-minded gentlemen are perhaps not the best folks to take civics lessons from. Outlets Huffington and Drudge cater primarily to readers on the left and right, respectively, and it's possible to digest much of one's news quotient from your site of choice without having any of your presuppositions challenged.

Perhaps the biggest question mark I have about aggregation, though, is this: In an age when there's so much information to digest, and there are so many creative ways in which to digest it, are we missing the point of all these facts, figures and cultural tidbits we so readily absorb? Is it possible that the more brain space we dedicate to the Madoffs and Susan Boyles and Balloon Boys of the world, the less we really understand any of them? Have we dispensed true understanding to excel in a perpetual game of cultural Trivial Pursuit?

We can't fathom the numbers at play in the health-care debate or the national debt. But we can rattle off the latest NBA results. And we can "intelligently" talk about Tiger Woods' alleged mistresses. Some of us can even recite David Letterman's latest Top 10 list.

In our quest to be smarter, is it possible that too much information is making us dumber?