Information Overload, Paradigm Underload? The Internet and Political Disruption

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by
James Gleick. London: Fourth Estate, 2011. 544 pp.,
£25.00 hardcover, 978 0 00 722573 6

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World by
Evgeny Morozov. London: Allen Lane, 2011. 432 pp.,
£16.99 paperback, 978 0 14 196182 8

Cognitive Surplus Creativity and Generosity in a Connected
Age by Clay Shirky. London: Allen Lane, 2010.
256 pp., £20.00 hardcover, 978 1 84 614217 8

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information
Empires by Tim Wu. London: Atlantic Books, 2010. 384
pp., £19.99 hardcover, 978 1 84887 984 3

By early 2011 many powerful political institutions appeared to face a profound challenge. Wikileaks, Anonymous and the Arab Spring seemed part of a trend. Ordinary people around the world were using new communications media to mobilise for change and in some cases get results. The Internet – the overlapping network of networks – enabled an information flux that authorities could not control. This was not a matter of scale, or direction, or ownership of information. This, for some, was a phase shift to a qualitatively new form of human relations. The meaning of power, authority and indeed ownership seemed increasingly muddy. This created two problems. First, how could these shifts be understood? Second, how could a qualitatively different world be acted upon, by policy makers, activists and others? The struggle for comprehension was evident when James Gleick, author of The Information reviewed here, came to talk at the Royal Society of Arts in London in April. Moderator Nico McDonald asked whether the rapidly changing scales, velocities and characteristics of information were creating ‘information overload, paradigm underload’. Without a paradigm to understand the present, how can policy be made for the future?

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