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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

More is Less: How the Internet Makes us Informationally Worse Off

Since the first university opened its doors in Bologna, Italy, libraries have been front-and-center of the academic enterprise. Scrolls and books, hand copied by scribes and monks for centuries, were collected and curated by the scholars employed there. If you wanted to know something in the year 1500, a university library was your best bet. The library was a vast archive of information. At no time in human history had that much information been collected into a singular location and made accessible to so many people.

That's not to say that ancient libraries contained only information. There was plenty of misinformation and disinformation, too. (For a primer on the difference, see here.) But the odds were good that libraries would contain the very best information of the day. Even on scientific and philosophical questions that the ancients and medievals got fantastically wrong, the information available in the libraries of their day would have contained the best arguments and evidence for those positions.

These days, libraries matter much less. That's not to say that they are unimportant. But in relative terms, libraries matter much less both to the academic enterprise and to everyday life. You can measure this in academic library budgets, reductions to library inventories, and numbers of patrons served. Even as recently as the 1980s, libraries were far more important than they are today. The reason, of course, is the internet.

The internet has become the greatest repository of information the universe has ever seen. Made of up more than a billion websites, with about 600 being added every minute, the internet is the library's library. There are lots of large numbers that I could give you to make the point, but just consider this: the data stored by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon is 1.2 million terabytes. That's huge, and it's just scratching the surface of all of the data that's out there.

Not only does the internet provide more information than a library, but it also makes the data (a) more accessible and (b) more personalized. As for accessibility, I can use the smartphone in my pocket find out approximately how many offspring Genghis Khan had in a few seconds. As for personalization, everything from search engines to social media take my past browsing history, location, and other personal details into account when deciding what information to serve up. Never before in human history have we had this much information this available and this personalized.

There is much that is good about this. Gone are the days of spending hours driving to a library, struggling with a card catalog, and dead-ending in books that aren't relevant. And the information out there is no longer censored through a screen of gatekeepers, be they scholars or governments. That allows voices to be heard that were otherwise suppressed.

But there is much bad about the development of the internet, too. There are many ways in which it makes us informationally worse off than we were with libraries. More is sometimes less. Facts are available to us in ways that they have never been. And yet many of us are more misinformed on certain topics than we ever would have been in 1985. How is that possible?

First, even if you hold the ratio of information to mis/disinformation constant, increasing the overall size of the informational pie makes it less likely that information consumers end up with the truth. A similar trend has been demonstrated in marketing: offering consumers more options nearly always leads to (a) lower total sales volume and (b) decreased consumer satisfaction. If you have to choose between selling three types of gourmet jams and thirty types of gourmet jams, go with the three.

Something similar is true of our consumption of information. If you give me three websites about Napoleon or three-million websites about Napoleon, I'll do a better job evaluating the veracity of the three. If they contain the same ratio of true to false, fewer sources are better. Humans are at risk of informational overload when we are confronted with data of internet proportions. We're just not built to be able to sort through that much data reliably.

Second, even setting aside the overall informational growth from library days to internet days, the ratio of true to false has NOT been held constant. In the library days, publishing a book was onerous: it was time-consuming, expensive, and controlled by publishing gatekeepers who had reputational incentives for not publishing bullshit. All of those controls are now gone. Any looney with a laptop can publish her thoughts about 9/11 or climate change. So the ratio of what's true to false has shifted. There are relatively more false claims circulating on the web than there were in the libraries of old.

Third, given the size of the data out there, we need tools to curate it. I can't look at every website about Genghis Khan, so I rely on Google to narrow it down for me. The problem is that the software each of us uses to narrow down the options is biased. All if it is. From search engines to social media, the algorithms that control returns, feeds, etc. are aimed at producing engagement (clicks, views, shares, etc.). And since engagement doesn't always track the truth, that means the software we use to navigate this huge dataset is not always reliable. Sometimes it tells us what we want to hear rather than what's true.

Fourth, and finally, past success on the internet makes us think we know more than we really do. There's clear evidence that when people successfully find information on the web, they later overestimate how much they know about completely unrelated topics. So when you do a Google search for the capital of Turkey, then another about the number of solar panels in the US, and third about the details of Ben Afleck's wedding, you thereby become more confident in your intuitions about the efficacy of the COVID vaccine or the wisdom of rent control policies! That's scary. The fact that you can successfully use the net to find out some information about far-flung topics increases your confidence in local judgments that are totally disconnected from web surfing.

In sum, there's more information available than ever before, the ratio of the informational pie has tilted towards what's false, the tools we use to sort through this informational firehose are biased, and our past successes make us overconfident in what we believe. The takeaway is that even though there's more information available than ever before, it is more likely that we'll be led astray on certain topics.

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