Information Overload and the Possibilities of Digital Asceticism

Sharon Begley’s Newsweek piece, “I Can’t Think,” tackles the problem of information overload with the help of some recent neurological studies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, “With too much information, ” according to one researcher, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”  Most of us are all too familiar with the mounting sense of indecision and even anxiety the more information we collect regarding an important decision, so this won’t come as too much of a surprise.  Here is one interesting note, however, analogous to the observations noted a couple of days ago about memory and creativity:

“If you let things come at you all the time, you can’t use additional information to make a creative leap or a wise judgment,” says Cantor. “You need to pull back from the constant influx and take a break.” That allows the brain to subconsciously integrate new information with existing knowledge and thereby make novel connections and see hidden patterns. In contrast, a constant focus on the new makes it harder for information to percolate just below conscious awareness, where it can combine in ways that spark smart decisions.

On the same topic, Nicholas Carr has offered a helpful distinction in a recent blog post.  The problem with information used to be not having enough of it and designing good filters to find the relevant stuff.  This is no longer the issue.

Situational overload is the needle-in-the-haystack problem: You need a particular piece of information – in order to answer a question of one sort or another – and that piece of information is buried in a bunch of other pieces of information. The challenge is to pinpoint the required information, to extract the needle from the haystack, and to do it as quickly as possible. Filters have always been pretty effective at solving the problem of situational overload …

Situational overload is not the problem. When we complain about information overload, what we’re usually complaining about is ambient overload. This is an altogether different beast. Ambient overload doesn’t involve needles in haystacks. It involves haystack-sized piles of needles. We experience ambient overload when we’re surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the never ending pressure of trying to keep up with it all.

As is often noted, given the choice between the problems attending information scarcity and those attending information over-abundance, better to opt for the latter.  It may ultimately be difficult to argue with this point.  But problems are problems and so we feel their force and long for solutions.  Given that this is Ash Wednesday, one is tempted to suggest that perhaps what is needed are new personal practices of digital asceticism informed by our (evolving) understanding of the conditions under which the human mind and body best function and flourish.  These are some of the possible choices that may inform such a set of practices, at least as they come to my mind:

  • Intentionally aim for the temperate use of digital media
  • Allow for periods of silence
  • Seek digitally unmediated interactions with others
  • Accept that we cannot keep up with all of it
  • Acknowledge the goodness of certain limitations associated with embodiment
  • Practice separation from devices that make you anxious by their absence

More suggestions welcome.

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