Predictions and Information Overload

I’m currently reading Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Childhood’s End, and I found this passage funny:

…there are too many distractions and entertainments. Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder people are becoming passive sponges — absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!

I don’t think Clarke was really attempting to make a firm prediction in this statement (which is essentially made in passing), but it’s amusing to think how much he got right and how much he got wrong. Considering that he was writing this book in the early 1950s, he actually did make a pretty decent prediction when it came to average viewing time per person. In the US, the number is more like 4-5 hours a day (I’m betting that this will be in decline, especially in this year of the WGA strike), but worldwide, it’s probably down around 3 hours a day. On the other hand, Clarke drastically underestimated the amount of content made available and also the effect of so much content.

The United States alone has 2,218 stations, which is over 4 times as many stations as Clarke had predicted hours. If we assume each station only broadcasts for an average of 16 hours a day, that works out to be over 35,000 hours of programming (70 times as much as Clarke had predicted for both TV and radio). And this doesn’t even count things like On Demand, DVDs, and newer entertainment mediums like the Internet (which includes stuff like You Tube and Podcasts,etc… in addition to the standard textual data) and Video Games.

Which brings me to the other interesting thing about Clarke’s prediction. He seemed to think that when that much entertainment became readily available, we would become “passive sponges — absorbing but never creating.” But in today’s world, the opposite seems true. Indeed, content creation seems to be accelerating. To be sure, Clarke was right in the general sense that massive amounts of data do indeed come with problems of their own. Clarke is certainly right to note that you can only really experience a tiny fraction of what’s out there at any given time, and this can be an issue. Ironically, a google search for “Information Overload” yields 2,150,000 results, which is as good an example as any. On a personal level, I don’t think this goes as far as, say, Nicholas Carr seems to think, and as long as we find ways around the mammoth amounts of data we’re all expected to assimilate on a daily basis (stuff like self-censorship seems to help), we should be fine.