Media Black Hole: So Much News That We'll Implode?

February 23, 2011

Have you noticed? The news cycle is spinning faster. And faster. Andfasterandfaster.

Congressman Christopher Lee (R-NY) resigns because of a scandal even before the scandal is known to the public. On websites we get Tuesday's news on Monday. As online commenters, we discuss articles we haven't read and dis movies we haven't watched. Google anticipates the stories we want to see even before we know we want to see them. And as one person tweeted recently: "Tunisia's revolution took four weeks. Egypt: 17 days. Who's next and how much time do they have?"

When it comes to the news of the day, newspapers, websites, bloggers, cable networks and aggregators all trip over themselves to be the fastest and the first. The competition has always existed, but technology has ramped up the rivalries.

At this increasingly accelerated pace, is it inevitable that noteworthy events — and the news they engender — will rush lickety-split into each other? What happens when things just cannot occur any faster? What if the rapidity of the newscycle outpaces the news itself and we wind up in some form of warp speed — living life in a wormholish, time-wrinkled world?

James Gleick, author of the 1999 classic Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, says, "Everybody thinks there's got to be a breaking point. But the breaking point never comes."

A Quantum Leap

As overwhelming as the rush of news — the comings and goings of despots, the rise and demise of movements — can be, there is some "comfort" to be found in the laws of the universe, says J. Richard Gott III, an astrophysicist at Princeton University and author of Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective. For the news to outrun the event is an impossibility in this universe, he says. That's because of the "Planck time" — the smallest measurement of time possible, in quantum physics terms — that would occur between events.

"You can't change governments faster than the Planck time," he says. "Otherwise, you create a black hole and the events collapse into each other."

Phew. In that, one supposes, there's a quantum of solace.

Still, with news — and reaction to news — moving more quickly than ever, says Louis Gray, a Silicon Valley blogger who chronicles the ever-increasing speed of computers and companies, "it is safe to assume the public does not know about many top stories or issues, and cannot be assumed to have enough data to ascertain truth versus spin, and right versus wrong."

As a result, Gray says, "people are intentionally filtering the information they consume through sources they agree with, or are turning instead to entertainment and idle-time activities, becoming less informed."

News Finders, Not Makers

Steven Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation: How to Win in a World Where Consumers Are Creators, believes we will learn to navigate the new world with the help of other navigators. He wrote in The Huffington Post that we are living in "a world where abundance is assumed in the world of content — there's no shortage of content makers of all shapes and sizes. But the avalanche of content makes finding the content you're looking for significantly harder."

By choosing to read a certain story or subscribe to a certain blog — and letting others know that we "like" the stories and blogs — we are saving time for those who trust us, according to Rosenbaum.

"The world of curation will have lots of brand-name, well-known curators you know and trust," Rosenbaum wrote. "The new media moguls won't be makers, they'll be finders, endorsers and presenters."

In an interview, Rosenbaum adds: "Curious people will have more of an opportunity to engage in curated and complex editorial mixes, and people who define themselves as a political party, or an issue, or any other narrow set of filters will embrace sources that don't expose them to alternative points of view."

Still, the problem remains: The news is coming at us so fast and furious, we don't always have time to be exposed to news we are not already interested in. Our horizons may not be broadened by this onslaught but narrowed. And it might become harder to experience serendipitous moments, those Holy Cow! instances of discovery.

Gleick thinks the solution is to adjust our speed when it comes to filtering the news. Though everything is accelerating, "we aren't going to invert the space-time continuum," he says. "We aren't going to live our futures ahead of our past. But we're going to learn — we are already learning — that faster does not equal better."

At the point at which we seem to be getting tomorrow's news today, Gleick says, "we just need to wave a red flag. Tomorrow hasn't come yet."

Gleick adds, "Some things — and news is just one of them—are worth waiting for."