In Favor of Information Overload

As technology advances, the pace of innovation quickens at an almost exponentially faster pace. At times I ponder whether the excesses of the information age now imply that in the most developed, richest nations, we are experiencing its profligate last stages, before augmented and virtual reality jump the information age to an entirely higher stratosphere. After all, with the mass amounts of spurious information now being created by the gigabyte as I type this, as well as the perhaps even more massive totals of accurate information being generated and yet never to be analyzed, are we drowning in our own excess?

The primary challenge for anyone looking to remain relatively well informed is how to deal with the torrent of information bombarding your typical day, with or without your consent. You already take in more than you may think – for example, right now I am writing this while listening (please don’t judge me) to Demi Lovato, after listening to a medley of Rostam’s latest album Half-Light, just after checking Twitter, with several tabs open to articles, one of which I am about to cite. Can the typical human brain handle this much information?

Yes and no. It is obvious that we have limited focus and attention spans, and consequently have to make deliberate choices in what we really want to pay attention to (for example, I fear that I am not really paying THAT much attention to Ms. Lovato’s lyrics). The most common complaint that usually follows this obvious problem of training your ability to focus – which, by the way, is probably one of the greatest competitive differentiators for employees nowadays, in my experience – is that it is increasingly hard given exposure to so much information flow. We should limit our intake, so that line of reasoning goes, very selectively. Prune your Twitter feed, cull your magazine subscriptions, etc.

I disagree. I think that we underrate the human brain’s ability to handily reject information that isn’t relevant to the needs of the moment. Case in point: I’m about a third of the way through my customary Saturday morning reading time, and I can relate how I have read two interviews in Quanta magazine, one with Ken Ono, a gifted mathematician, about his book regarding an Indian math prodigy from the 19th century, and another with physicist Neil Johnson about modeling extremist behaviors online. I read an Aeon article about the transformative nature of the changing-self paradigm, and another about creepypasta. I read an Art of Manliness article about four key money-saving principles. And last but not least, I read an intriguing article from Quanta (again) that I recognized would prove of use in writing this contemplation of information intake.

That article explores how the “information bottleneck”, wherein less-relevant details are pruned from memories by the human brain unconsciously to preserve more important details for working memory purposes, could prove of use as a concept to trainers of deep neural networks. That process of mental pruning of relevant details is constant – I am already losing details of those articles I listed above, apart from the one I just cited, as my parsing of that one was repeated. Such repetition increases the brain’s retention because reviewing increases the firing of neurons down the same pathway, signaling to the brain that this is worth storing in working memory.

Now, if this process is already underway, to what degree do we truly lose if we deliberately expose our informational capacity to as much as possible, or even more than anything possible? Isn’t that the wiser course, as then the primary challenge is to hone our sense of what is best to retain in working memory? Rather than throttle the stream of information at the source, why not gently nudge its flows into more disparate channels of varying priority? In brief, train your prioritization, not your volume of intake.

The cultivation of one’s stores of information is critical, of course, but maintaining the diversity of the mental ecosystem, so to speak, is as important as the biome’s variety to the body’s overall health. Managing the only truly limited resource, one’s precious time, then, is the accompanying, paramount challenge.

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