Death by information

The Web 2.0 age has always had its fair share of Luddites warning about the dangers of an expanding web. There have been Matrix-alluding pronouncements about the Intertubes taking over our life, social groups warning us about the demise of normal sexual relations stemming from porn that’s available faster than a cup of Ramen, and countless parents Twittering about how their kids are on their damn devices during dinner. I think most rational people tended to ignore these arguments, because apocalyptic pronouncements have probably followed every new major technology. Instant porn is here to stay; we figured we just have to get used to using in ways that are optimal. There is probably going to be a learning curve, but the only choice we have is to climb it.

Here’s what I think: whatever that curve is, we’ve proved really bad at climbing it. The anecdotal evidence is in cases like those SEC guys, high-up white collar professionals, who spent whole days downloading and burning to DVDs more pornography than they could ever consume. Increasingly though, there’s scientific research pointing to the same direction, like that discussed in this article about how being wired changes our brain. To be honest, the experiments themselves aren’t entirely convincing, and the conclusions verge on the extreme, but the basic premise is, I think, an interesting one. Basically, every time we see a new bit of information available for us, like a new e-mail or a new blog post on your favorite blog (no, really, you’re too kind), it gives us a little dopamine injection, an injection that we become accustomed to and learn to crave.

Here’s an experiment for you to do: wait until the most boring part of the day at work, like 4 pm (or 9 pm, if you’re in i-banking), and open your personal e-mail in a tab in your browser (if you don’t have it open already). Go to another tab, and go about your business. Wait for an e-mail come in, for the little (1) to appear in your Gmail tab (or, if you’re less organized, for the (564) to turn to (565)). Now see how long you can go without checking what that e-mail is. Can you go 10 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour? I usually give up after 15.

Here’s the problem with checking stuff out on the internet: it offers small, randomly placed rewards at almost no cost. When I’m bored, there’s a list of websites I’ll run through, even when I’m pretty sure there’s nothing interesting on them. Sometimes I refresh the stats page on this blog. If the number has increased, I get that small burst of dopamine (see how important you guys are?). How many of you can honestly say that you check Facebook the optimal number of times per day? If someone told you that you could only check Facebook one time a day, you might be annoyed, but would you really feel like you were getting less information than you wanted about what your friends were doing? To phrase it differently, do you feel like you’re not getting enough information today?

For me, at least, the answer is no. Assuming I’m not the only person with this answer, why are people so obsessed with smart phones and iPads? We’re breaking more and more ground in terms of being able to access information faster and from any location, and yet I don’t most people would say that they’re truly obtaining or using that information optimally. Unless you need it for work, you probably don’t need to be any more connected with the Web 2.0 world than you already are. If you’re anything like me, you probably want more structure rather than more quantity. And yet the only products we’re developing are ones that increase quantity.

I’m shocked that we haven’t come up with software that allows us to self-limit internet use. Right now, if you’re considering toning down your internet use, all you have is this Manichean choice between embracing your data-addiction and going cold turkey. In a world where people are having friends make up new passwords for their Facebook accounts so that they can’t access them anymore, is there no room for a simple bit of software that limits your ability to access to Facebook to certain specified hours? This software would be really easy to make, and yet, there’s nothing. Is anyone at Google reading this? Please?*

The basic idea of easily accessible information and social networking is great, but to make it really work it requires a level of organization and control that will take time to develop. Not to sound hokey or overly dramatic, but I bet someday we’ll look back at the current age of information gluttony like people today look back at the beginnings of the sexual revolution – a good idea that people got a little too excited about and ran off the rails. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go Google my name.

If you’re interested in the economics of being unable to self-limit ourselves, check out this paper on how higher cigarette taxes lead to greater self-reported happiness among smokers.


11 Responses to “Death by information”

  1. 1 M July 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Couple of minor points.

    So the research assistantship I’m doing right now is all about internet stuff. Recently I’ve come across Nicholas Carr, who has built his career of late on electronic nay-saying, and it’s hilarious to see his leaps of logic and his interpretations of research that are as tenuous as they are alarmist. Even more hilarious is some guy Oppenheimer, who makes the kind of arguments that, if given without knowing that some guy was actually saying them sincerely, I would think was a straw horse. In the thing I’m writing, I’m going to cite at least Oppenheimer mostly for the amusement value. Basically, both of them have a deeply held conviction that different=bad, and all their arguments can be boiled down to that equivalence.

    When I’m bored, there’s a list of websites I’ll run through, even when I’m pretty sure there’s nothing interesting on them.

    That’s what RSS feeds are for! So you can check all those websites simultaneously for updates. RSS feeds are a great example of structure, not just quantity. I’ve become able to consume far more information far more quickly since I’ve started using google reader to aggregate feeds.

    There is software that allows us to self-limit. For example, there’s a thing that’s been in google labs for a while that allows you to switch off gmail for set periods of time, and I’m sure there’s freeware out there that does this more broadly.

    • 2 JSC7 July 5, 2010 at 12:01 am

      And I do use Google reader, and yes, it is a tremendous improvement, but even then, I either keep it open in a tab all the time, and feel an itch when I see there’s something new, or I keep it closed and check it at random times, probably too often. Plus it can’t subsume Facebook, Twitter and a host of other sites.

      As to software that self-limits, I think the Gmail labs thing is more of an outlier than a sign that similar and more expansive apps exist. Even that app isn’t great because it forces you to decide each time that you want a break, rather than allowing you to preset a structure of viewing hours. I want forward commitments! And that freeware doesn’t exist as far as I can tell, though I’d be happy to be proved wrong. All I’ve found is software that monitors teen internet use for parents, rather than anything for self-monitoring.

      • 3 JSC7 July 5, 2010 at 5:36 am

        Put it another way: this may be biased for my choice of vocabulary, but if I sign out of Google, and search for “software to self-limit internet use”, this blog post appears on page 2 of the results. If that’s not low press, I don’t know what is.

      • 4 JSC5 July 7, 2010 at 10:40 am

        You’ll find a longer response in my new post:

        But to add something that didn’t quite fit there: what’s up wtih the smartphone bashing? Location provides structure! Commuting on the bus or train? Make that the only time you allow yourself to read your RSS feed. Looking for someplace to eat nearby? Use Yelp as your main restaurant directory and rating service, and you won’t be surfing an unending list of local food guides at random times of day. The list goes on. My main point is that if you can access the information you need / can use effectively in that moment, then you won’t need/want to access it later on in the day when doing so is a suboptimal use of your time and can easily lead to overconsumption.

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  1. 1 Death by entertainment « Joint Stock Company Trackback on July 7, 2010 at 10:35 am
  2. 2 You say entertainment, I say information « Joint Stock Company Trackback on July 11, 2010 at 7:59 am

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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