I’m not a social scientist, but I play one on the Internet. And so does everyone else. Which is sort of the problem with the Internet. If you’ve read my articles even a little bit, you know I’m pretty much a wild optimist about the positive impact computing technology has had and will have on humanity, but the inevitable fallout of everybody being able to talk to everybody is that everybody talks to everybody and meaningful interaction and information becomes harder to find. Most any technology comes with some added trouble. The automobile is a similarly revolutionary technology, and yet we also don’t question that it brings with it pollution and safety concerns, neither of which invalidate the net benefits of the technology, but you are a fool to think there is no cost involved.
And so the invention of continuous entertainment has its costs too. I’m not enough of an expert to speak to the genuine psychological effects of so called “information overload,” (but ostensibly there are some), but we all seem to have this intuitive agreement that it can be nice to “unplug” sometimes. Also, regular Internet users are very aware of how, despite the speed and efficiency of obtaining information, one can easily get stuck in an hours long adventure to nowhere, the Internet equivalent of just vegetating in front of the TV. While I am prone to use the “information through a straw” metaphor when discussing television, having greater control of what content we can ingest doesn’t actually stop us from binging on superfluous content.
One phrase for all this unhelpful information fluff is data smog, as coined in David Shenk’s book of the same name. Shenk was a healthy skeptic in 1997, aptly foretelling our current “unplug” impulse, but by his own admission there were many things he did not foresee that have reduced the amount of pollution in our information intake. He wrote a good short read outlining what he got right and wrong, and what technologies and institutions have helped make our online interactions more useful and meaningful.
There are a lot of articulate people out there, and blogging culture has democratized journalism to some extent, but we are sometimes left with the Internet feeling like one big argument. A severe cynic, gazing upon the beginning of the information age, would fear that people would prove too easy to manipulate, that they would lack the skills to think critically about the information they were given. While the same cynic might have criticized older media institutions as well, they likely would have made an appeal to the implied authority of any information that is able to make it through the hedge maze that is traditional media. They wouldn’t have trusted the proverbial average person to make smart decisions about what they read and heard.
With automobiles came advances in automobile safety, and so too have we been spared from “the cacophony” as one friend of mine used to worry. With concern over how well we spend our time and how well we use our brains comes more optimism in the technology and the humans who use it. Yes, we all know the sea of user-generated content can get silly, even alienating sometimes, but over the last decade people have proven rather savvy at sniffing out the garbage, and sifting out the gold. It’s actually quite remarkable how humanity, in aggregate, can be so honest most of the time. The cynic is wrong.
The severe optimist would take an anti-establishment view, using rhetoric not unlike my own, criticizing the practice of hoarding away knowledge behind a privileged media class, and predicting a bright future full of truth and clarity. This isn’t true either. A softened version of the cynic’s view is that people are more capable than ever of remaining insular. It’s a double-edged sword, on one hand it is excellent that people can associate by interests instead of simple geography, but on the other the fracturing of society can lead to a poor “ideological gene pool” if you catch my meaning. People never have their views challenged, and it becomes easier and easier for groups to resist change.
The statistician in me wants to point to [confirmation bias], (The best joke about confirmation bias: “Once I learned about confirmation bias, I began to see it everywhere.”) People are typically biased to make observations that confirm what they already believe, and not to seek out or notice things that don’t, creating information that is skewed in favor of prior beliefs. This is a real problem in statistical and scientific research, but it is also something we can casually observe in ourselves. The true data smog is our tendency to just walk the same road over and over again.
So apart from the standard “unplug” advice of turning off your phone, keeping emails brief, and avoiding extended web surfing, my practical advice toward a more useful online experience is to break away from your comfort zone. The danger of information overload isn’t only that you can’t filter, it’s that you can also filter too much. You can be so overwhelmed by all the information that you can forget that, hey, you have all the information. Read about something new. Make new friends, or remember your old ones. Challenge yourself.