Posts Tagged 'information overload'

Liberal Caricature

By JSC5

Yesterday, co-blogger JSC7 linked to a bunch of new posts out there on the nets about how to effectively manage your online time and get away from destructive overconsumption. JSC7 ended the piece with a keen observation about the importance of models of healthy living, and how we basically don’t have any for internet use:

“We don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.”

As a matter of societal consensus, I think JSC7 is right.

However, it seems to me that there actually is a sizable group of people who are seriously grappling with “what it is to live well or badly in the modern world”. Those people are hippies, or leftists, or ‘limousine liberals’, or ‘latte-sipping, volvo-driving elitist snobs’, or granola west coasters — at least, that how they get caricatured.  These are the people who self-consciously think about their diets and their impact on the world, go out of their way to avoid dumping their externalities on the world, and limit the time they spend in front of the TV or ditch the TV entirely. And they’re also the people who are trying to spend more time outdoors jogging or playing Frisbee golf than inside on the internet.

And, as we all know, those people are all caricatured and ridiculed by the rest of us. It seems like ‘we’ actually do have a fairly good model of what healthy, ‘good’ living is supposed to look like in the modern world: eat more local, organic produce; don’t light a barrel of oil on fire to keep your living room warm; get more exercise; spend less time staring at a screen and more time interacting with real live people. Healthy internet use seems like part of an entire lifestyle package.

And even though ‘we’ all know what the right thing to do is, we can’t imagine adopting that lifestyle entirely. The magnitude of the change frightens us. So instead of accepting the superiority of healthy internet and exercise choices and making incremental improvements to our lives, we end up bragging about eating at McDonald’s and not driving a Prius. The real shame there is that the markers of a healthy lifestyle — which have no business being a partisan issue — get turned into partisan markers in a weird, tribal way. It’s terrible for our society when the healthy model of modern living turns into a liberal caricature that no one feels like emulating.

Death by entertainment

[by JSC5]

I can’t help but take issue with some things my colleague says in his interesting post, “Death by information“.

First, our points of agreement. I, too, think that we as a culture are far behind the learning curve in terms of our ability to successfully integrate into our lives the massive amount of new information that the web makes available. The dopamine rush of clicking the next link, reading the next email, reading that next little piece of insightful analysis of today’s news … that’s all very real.

Where I part ways with JSC7 is where I look for a solution. He calls for technologies that give our internet experience more structure, with pre-commitments to self-limit time or locations while online. That seems a bit off to me.

The problem isn’t so much “death by information” but rather “death by entertainment“. We shouldn’t treat the next item in the RSS feed or the next email in the inbox as information that we’re gathering in a (misguided) attempt to make ourselves more productive. Instead, we should treat the next unread item in the RSS feed as entertainment, pure and simple. It’s not the case that we were thirsty and came to the internet faucet for a drink of water and just end up lingering a longer than is optimal. Instead, we were bored and went into the Internet Saloon for a drink, and our drunkeness is the predictable result.

One outcome of looking at the problem as death by entertainment rather than information is that the obstacle to optimizing internet use isn’t necessarily structure, but rather personal creativity and imagination. While bars are fun and great places to pass the time, all but the most incorrigible souses agree that it’s just not healthy for a bar to be the main source of entertainment. There’s a bunch of other great places to find entertainment, like triple-A ball parks, Do-It-Yourself artisan groups, folk music festivals, and so on. It seems to me that we all overconsume bars and underconsume all the other great entertainment options — not because we’re alcoholics, but because it’s an easy, sure place to find some fun without having do the work of scrolling through the list of alternatives and picking one.

To bring this back to the internet, I guess the lesson is that online communication can be great for spreading information and increasing productivity. But my personal overconsumption over the internet has little to do with the information I’m getting and everything to do with my failings as a creative, active pursuer of entertainment. I have all the tools I need to structure my online experience. It’s just that sometimes I’m simply not creative enough to find better modes of entertainment than reading the day’s news and commentary.

So maybe the solution isn’t additional technologies to structure the internet experience. Maybe the solution is additional effort in cataloging, searching, and settling on alternative modes of entertainment. The relevant barriers there are in higher entry costs, uncertainty, and inconvenient access.


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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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