The Great Abbreviators

In 1932 Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, and in 1958 he wrote a non-fiction reassessment of the novel. Included in the introduction of this follow-up essay is a sentiment that is as relevant today as the moment it was written: given all the pressing important matters for us to consider as a society, how can we possibly decide where to meaningfully focus our attention?

But life is short and information endless: nobody has time for everything. In practice we are generally forced to choose between an unduly brief exposition and no exposition at all. Abbreviation is a necessary evil and the abbreviator’s business is to make the best of a job which, though intrinsically bad, is still better than nothing. (Huxley, 1958)

Concerning to Huxley was that the knowledge of the average person on the average topic was extremely abbreviated. At the same time, the more efficient we become as abbreviators, the more expansive and shallow our knowledge becomes. The more information there is to sift through, the more rampant the dilemma.

In 1985, American author Neil Postman published a book about the effects of the exponential growth of media technologies in people’s lives. He referenced Huxley’s remarks on the societal consequences of information inundation:

We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators, meaning that none of us has the wit to know the whole truth, the time to tell it if we believed we did, or an audience so gullible as to accept it. (Postman, 1958, p. 6)

Over the following years, Postman continued to develop this stream of thought. If society were set on this definite trajectory of abbreviation, where would we end up? What would become of information itself? Later, in 1990 he delivered a speech, Informing Ourselves to Death, in which he concluded that this chronic abbreviation would ultimately make information itself useless: data would become pointless and facts would be divorced from implementation.

The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it. (Postman, 1990a)

Whereas knowledge served as a lifeline and benefit in the past (i.e. the more you know, the better off you are) the “information glut” trivializes and saturates knowledge to the point of becoming a collective liability. In a 1990 interview, Postman suggested that

Too much information can be very dangerous because it can lead to a situation of meaninglessness; that is, people not having any basis for knowing what is relevant, what is irrelevant, what is useful, what is not useful… they live in a culture that is simply committed through all of its media to generate tons and tons of information every hour. (Postman, 1990b)

Since the time of Postman’s work on this issue, the output of informational media has grown exponentially. Remember, the term “user-generated content” did not even exist in 1990. Now the creation and consumption of information appears to be an ever-expanding bubble, unbreakable and unstoppable, and nobody knows where it is going. We can only imagine what Huxley and Postman might have said about a society where everyone carries a smartphone in their pocket.

Is there a ‘solution’ to this dilemma? How is someone supposed to navigate this world of abbreviation? Let’s return to Huxley again.

He must learn to simplify, but not to the point of falsification. He must learn to concentrate upon the essentials of a situation, but without ignor­ing too many of reality’s qualifying side issues. In this way he may be able to tell, not indeed the whole truth (for the whole truth about almost any important sub­ject is incompatible with brevity), but considerably more than the dangerous quarter-truths and half-truths which have always been the current coin of thought. (Huxley, 1958)

The danger of abbreviation is ‘quarter-truths’ and ‘half-truths’. The danger is pseudoscience. The danger is contextless, irrelevant sound bites sold as authoritative insight. The danger is equating ‘the truth’ with talking heads and ‘expert’ opinions.

The antidote is responsibility. My only response, the only action I can take, is two personal commitments:

Output Creed. A commitment to thorough, relevant content creation. A conscious shift from the blabbering of opinions to investigative journalism. You and I cannot remove all the garbage from the sea, but we can stop throwing more crap into it. From the perspectives of Huxley and Postman, there is virtually a moral dimension to pressing the “Publish” button: even the most trivial contribution of media clogs the arteries of public discourse with more noise, compounding this “situation of meaninglessness” as Postman called it. Contribute less. Contribute facts. The central priority is always to get as close to “whole truth” as possible. Think of everything else as costly half-truths, social liabilities, not merely morally neutral “filler” content.

Input Creed. A commitment to relevant and reverent data ingestion. The only reason people post on social media networks is because they are convinced someone will view their content. The only reason tabloids publish ridiculous nonsense is because people will pay for it. Our attention economy works just like our economic system: consumption drives innovation. Limit your data-input to creators who are diligently seeking the whole truth: they are the people who are addressing issues from multiple angles, interacting with a wide variance of view points, and willing to admit when they are wrong. When they speak their opinions, they speak from a posture of informed and critical analysis–not controversy for the sake of page hits. Those are the people you and I need to follow. Those are the creators that deserve our attention.

Postman, Neil. (1990a.) Speech to the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik), 11 Oct 1990, Stuttgart, Germany.
Postman, Neil. (1990b.) Interview on Open Minds, 12-08-90, accessed from the Internet Archive.
Postman, Neil. (1985.) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 20th Anniversary Ed (New York: Penguin Books, 2005)
Huxley, Aldous. (1958.) Brave New World Revisited. HarperCollins Canada / Harper Trade; Reprint edition (Aug 23 2006)

2 thoughts on “The Great Abbreviators

Comments are closed.