Commentary

Immersed In Too Much Information, We Can Sometimes Miss The Big Picture

Even in the era of Facebook, this was not a face I expected to see.

A few weeks ago, I might have argued that it’s almost impossible to shock members of Generation TMI. I would have been wrong. I was shocked by a recent Time cover that featured a photo of Aisha, an 18 year-old Afghan woman who had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban.

Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan woman. i i

hide captionThis photo provided by Time magazine show's the cover of the August 9, 2010 issue, with a photo of Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan woman. Aisha's nose and ears were sliced off in 2009, under orders from a local Taliban commander acting as a judge.

AP
Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan woman.

This photo provided by Time magazine show's the cover of the August 9, 2010 issue, with a photo of Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan woman. Aisha's nose and ears were sliced off in 2009, under orders from a local Taliban commander acting as a judge.

AP

My first reaction was to look away from the photo. My second was frustration toward the Time editors who decided to run the image. But after some reflection, I realized that in order to understand and form an opinion about the Taliban and the broader issues in Afghanistan, it was an image I needed to see. As a fellow human being — especially one living in an environment where my iPhone coverage is considered a critical issue — isn’t taking a long, hard look at this photo the very least I owe Aisha?

Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel explained his decision to run the cover shot:

Bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it.

While thinking about this issue and its relationship to social media, I reached out to the cadre of folks who often advise and assist me before I press the publish button.

None of them had seen the image.

This is in part a statement on the significance (or lack thereof) of magazine covers in today’s media.

I could imagine folks missing even an image this arresting in the past. But who would've thought we could collectively avert our eyes in an age when random videos can get millions of views and we all know about a Jet Blue flight attendant's creative slide to retirement within a few hours of it happening.

But that these folks — all of them heavily plugged-in —  missed this portrait of Aisha is also a statement on how we can collectively repress data that we don’t want to think about. Even though we are immersed in shared words and images, it’s still pretty easy to miss the big picture.

In his New Yorker piece, Letting Go, Atul Gawande laments the fact that doctors and patients have extremely poor communication when it comes to the difficult topic of end-of-life care.

Two-thirds of the terminal-cancer patients in the Coping with Cancer study reported having had no discussion with their doctors about their goals for end-of-life care, despite being, on average, just four months from death.

Although we find ourselves as travelers in the age of over sharing, it turns out we remain quite adept at avoiding the really tough topics.

Google’s Eric Schmidt recently stated that every two days we create as much information as we did from the beginning of civilization through 2003. Perhaps the sheer bulk of data makes it easier to suppress that information which we find overly unpleasant. Who’s got time for a victim in Afghanistan or end-of-life issues with all these Tweets coming in?

Between reality TV, 24-hour news, and the constant hammering of the stream, I am less likely to tackle seriously uncomfortable topics. I can bury myself in a mountain of incoming information. And if my stream is any indication, I’m not alone. For me, repression used to be a one man show. Now I am part of a broader movement — mass avoidance through social media.

Eric Schmidt followed up his comment about the piles of information being created with this: “I spend most of my time assuming the world is not ready for the technology revolution that will be happening to them soon.”

But in reality, we’re a lot more ready for the technology revolution than we are for Aisha.

Dave Pell is a San Francisco based, Web-addicted insider, investor and entrepreneur. He has been blogging for more than a decade. This post first appeared on his blog Tweetage Wasteland.

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