Author article by Lyric Hale: News of the World – Why too much information is helping us make bad decisions

Lyric Hale

Lyric Hale

Last week leading economic commentator and What’s Next? author Lyric Hale discussed the potential economic fallout caused by a natural disaster in Iran. This week she discusses the evolving state of global news, and why the ever-growing influence of social media can lead to  greater participation, but also greater confusion.

Article by Lyric Hughes Hale

“Is something going on in China?” my daughter asks. She hasn’t been able to get on the Internet or access gmail all weekend. Her location? Beijing, and I am in Chicago. I tell her that the lead China story here is the bullet train crash, but events in Norway and the Washington have completely overshadowed China. I can’t figure out a reason for the blackout, unless the Chinese are worried about incoming news about the violence in Norway. A quick check of the official press: Both People’s Daily and China Daily cover the massacre, but the train crash is the main event. My daughter tells me to check out Sina Weibo, a hugely popular blogging site. I still can’t find anything unusual. Perhaps the reports about Jiang Zemin’s death are true, and communications are being clamped down in advance of an official announcement.

It’s not always easy to get news even closer to home, in our lakeside town north of Chicago. This past Friday at around midnight, trying to sleep thinking about what had happened that day in Norway, it began to storm. Nothing unusual for July, but the rain did not stop until a record-breaking 7 inches had fallen. My son learns the true meaning of the word “bailout” as we searched for pails. Things got worse once it stopped, but we did not hear a siren, or a word from our local town officials. As basements across town began to rapidly flood, we got our only news from a local resident who somehow has access to a lot of email addresses. Oak Street is impassable she warns us. Heartbreakingly, we hear that puppies, kenneled in a basement for the night, drowned as their owners slept through the thunderstorm.

The next morning, the cleanup begins. At noon on Saturday, quite literally après le deluge, we receive a phone call from our village president. It is a mass pre-recorded “emergency” message, telling us that flooding has occurred (no longer news) and that we can put our ruined carpeting and furniture on our front lawns for disposal and pickup on Wednesday. Sometimes it is better to say nothing if you have waited too long. Fury erupts. For the first time, I chime in. In California, they have something called Reverse 911. When an emergency looms, authorities call residents with safety instructions. When massive wildfires threatened San Diego a couple of years ago, the result of this emergency preparedness was that not a single life was lost. Why didn’t we have a similar plan in place?

Which brings me to Mark Roeder, one of the Australian contributor’s to our book, What’s Next? as well as the author of The Big Mo. Mark makes a point that is a bit hard for an information junkie such as myself. However, I have to admit that his argument that too much information is helping us make bad decisions has some teeth. I get my data from all over the world, in various formats and platforms, and it is not always predictable where I will find the really good information. I have to use my own judgment, and there is no doubt that formerly authoritative sources for content are not always the best places to go. It is time-consuming, and exhausting.

I admit that I cannot wait to read an authoritative physical newspaper when breaking events are occurring. In fact, even as the daughter and granddaughter of newspaper editors, I rarely read newspapers offline. I am drawn like a moth to the flame to the accounts of unpaid eyewitness reporters, who have ironically replaced budget-killing foreign correspondents, who in turn are prominently quoted by mainstream media anyway.

It is true that we are inundated with a lot of junk, and that many of us lack the discipline and judgment to focus. But there is something new created when information flows both ways. Social media in particular has the power to effect change. Corporate scandals, celebrity news, and political revolutions unfold with amazing, amazing speed. According to Mark:

It was this same social media dynamic that played such a pivotal role in the Arab Spring uprisings. Unlike other forms of communication, social media feeds on itself – voraciously and exponentially. In our momentum-driven, fully interconnected world such actions speed things up. That’s the nature of large-scale momentum.

There is no doubt that changes, both micro and macro, have occurred as a result. Entrenched governments have fallen with unimaginable swiftness, and even in our small town, it is a safe bet that money that was going into fancy new tennis courts is going to be diverted to upgrading our drainage systems. There is another deeper question. In a realm where everyone is king, who will be the leader? Who will build the new institutions, and do the hard work to build consensus?

What's Next?

What’s Next?

Unfortunately, the same expansion and specialization of media that led to greater participation and democratization, has also resulted in greater polarization, especially here in the United States. It has helped to create the deadlock that we are seeing in Washington. That is the dark side of momentum in 21st century communications.

What’s Next? Unconventional Wisdom on the Future of the World Economy by David Hale and Lyric Hale is available now from Yale University Press.

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