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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Plato's Garbage Pile

The internet is a distraction medium par excellence, as it can sidetrack you to areas that scarcely reflect your main interests at hand. But even if we keep our focus on the straight and narrow, in lieu of making our attention roam wide, the internet can make our attention long. This may represent the most insidious distraction of all.

Consider a shopper going to Wal-Mart in search of a couple of tomatoes. Upon quickly finding his perfect, ripe red veggies (fruit actually), his attention is drawn to the other tomatoes in the aisle that are a bit overripe. Soon his attention moves again to a row of spoiled tomatoes, and then finally to a bushel of rotten tomatoes. He becomes eventually up to his ears in tomatoes, entranced not so much by their ripeness but by the novelty of their rottenness.

Now consider an individual who wants to go out to the movies. Wanting to note the critical opinion on a specific film, he goes to the website ‘Rotten Tomatoes’. The site, which contains scores of reviews for individual films, gives him fresh information on the quality of the film. But other reviews of the site’s page remain compelling, even if the information is redundant and stale. But our information shopper persists, accessing even more reviews as the quality of the information becomes progressively more stale and ‘rotten’.

In hindsight, both shoppers would have been better off searching in a smaller venue such as a farmer’s market or local newspaper. They would have gotten good tomatoes and good movie reviews, and not have wasted time with the diminishing returns of looking at fruit or film reviews that have less and less useful knowledge to give.  When we apply the moral of this story to the internet, we note that the internet is super in finding important things that with slight variations endlessly repeat themselves. We hook on to the variation, but forget the fact that the information is redundant, and is likely as stale as a three week old tomato.

Plato’s Garbage Pile

So if you are looking about facts about the economy, a Mideast war, a football game, or whatever, you will find a pile of facts that have as much enduring value as a bushel of rotten tomatoes. You are what you eat, and you are also what you learn. And if you end up consuming a lot of redundant information only to learn scarcely nothing for your trouble, you’ve just filled up on virtual garbage.

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