Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Information Addict

I walked behind her, the city swirling in the human ejecta that had arrived predictably from the office buildings as the workday drew to a close. She brushed awkwardly against the tide of pedestrian traffic, distracted,  her honey brown hair swinging. The leather satchel hung heavily from her shoulder, making the task at hand that much more difficult. Her secondary goals were to catch the train, to cross the busy streets, but her primary focus right now, in the bustle of the busiest city street was her smartphone. She held it out like a compass, engaged in a pressing conversation. I saw the blurs of blue and green as she dodged the passers by - the telling hues of the Android SMS app.  I stared at her golden hoop earring, mesmerized, as it swayed all of its own accord with the rhythm of the street. 

It seemed almost comical, to watch somebody furiously engaged in texting, in this peculiar form of social interaction, in the middle of a million people.  I began to wonder, what is it that makes us so obsessed? And then I realised. She was suffering from the same malady that I do - and that you probably do too. She was a junkie. She was addicted to something, something powerful, intoxicating, something that we all crave with incredible reckless abandon. She was an information addict.

The world that we live in now is steeped in information. Spectacular images are everywhere, whizzing by us on buses, flickering at us from neon signs. Motivating quotations and inspiring sayings are co-opted into advertisements. We can take a photo or a video of anything we see and share it with billions of strangers. I can take any place in the city, and find out fifty different opinions of it. There are millions and millions  of social media status updates posted each day, ranging across the whole range of humanity, from the pornographic, through the thoughtful, banal, the humorous and the bizarre. All of this informaiton is available to us, and our computers at any time. The whole body of human knowledge is, more or less, accessible from the pocket of the average pair of blue jeans. And those jeans are periodically buzzing.

I arrived at my hotel, and sat down in the lobby. With a quick Google search for the date and venue, I quickly  found the three events that had taken place at the hotel that day. From there, I could find the hashtags used for those events, and there, right before me, streamed a whole series of updates from the attendees - a Building Industry Management course, a meeting of the Australian Press Club, and a business lunch from the CEO of Google Australia, talking about the importance of moving business models from the traditional to the online. All of these conversations, like information ghosts, relics of the events that I had not attended that day - I could conjure them out of the air. I could read the ideas, the disagreements, the inside jokes. Meet the people, read their profiles, their histories.  I looked around at the real life people sitting in the lobby, many of them just as I was, alone and engaged with their smartphones. Having meaningful interactions, with people far, far away from the silver and gold gleaming metal hotel reception.

Outside of hunger for food and lust for reproduction, the thing that we all crave the most, is knowledge. And operational knowledge comes from one thing - analysing information. Just like the sweetness of sugar, the heady sense of dopamine that we get from consuming information is a precursor - it's a sign that something good is coming. Consuming information pleases our brains, it gives us a reassuring sense of insight, it tells us that we could possibly gain something from this interaction. It gives us something to look forward to. Just like the sweetness on the tongue is an indication of impending calories, useful calories, the consumption of information is the first step to actually knowing something. And knowing something can be remarkably powerful - it could, after all lead to reproduction or acquisition of food or other resources. It's all about the knowing of things, this is what we want. And this is why we are all engaged, so recklessly, often at our own peril, in consumption of the endless banquet of information that we have before us.

Just like processed food, and the glut of readily available calories have caused so many of us to become obese, and unhealthy (In fact, there are more people on the planet today suffering from the consequences of too much food, rather than too little), isn't it possible that this massive oversupply of readily available information is going to cause us unhappiness? Is consuming all this information actually harmless?

Look at the growth in conspiracy theory. It goes directly to the dopamine center of the brain, by fuelling the ego of the conspiracy theorist. Because they alone, know something that nobody else knows, that the Rothschilds are controlling the weather, or that lizard people live inside the hollow Earth controlling all the illuminati. It's like a kind of tasty, promising fast food consumption, and one that doesn't' swell the waistline, but the head. Wake up sheeple!

I have spent my entire life, like lots of us, working with information. Trying to find ways to manage it appropriately, to connect people with meaningful information, to help people to get a handle on this information volume problem, and I am slowly coming around to the realization that excess information consumption is most definitely problematic.

Some of the issues include our inability to process the"right" kinds of information - a kind of signal to noise problem. But other issues arise from the fact that our models that we have evolved for processing this information are largely cracking under the pressure. Our society has not evolved mechanisms to cope with this massive influx of information. Our governance systems and leadership models are failing us, not because we don't know things, but because we do.  Twitter watching, Poll obsessed politicians drive at optimizing policies for the niche case of voters likely to turn an election, rather than providing any kind of meaningful guidance. Internet special interest groups are soliciting for email lists much faster than they are for policies.

We have evolved a brain that is wired for ideas. It's wired to listen to them, to turn them over, to look for patterns, and to combine them with other ideas. And like all natural systems, these systems are prone to corruption. Just like a raven will adapt to the garbage bin, and shift his diet from bugs to fries, the human pattern matching algorithm will just as happily follow an endless stream of amusing photographs on a tumblr site. We've all done it. It's fun.

But is it healthy?

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