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.


Path to a New World Order: Deglobalization via Demographics

Everyone likes to think they are a contrarian in some way, in an ironic twist reminiscent of the fact most rate themselves as above-average drivers. I am as guilty as anyone of this phenomenon, which is why I am be predisposed to agree with the authors of an intriguing new paper, available here. In brief, the authors’ argument is that aging demographics will lead to savings being lower than investment, which will contribute to rising real interest rates, inflation and wage growth, all the while inequality falls. You should read the paper for a full runthrough of their reasoning, but I couldn’t help but take their conclusions a few steps further.

Ever since Fukuyama declared “The End of History” many have been trying to poke holes in the theory that the current world order is truly that superior. Some say that rising inequality in developed nations (noted in the aforementioned paper) as well as Brexit, populist political movements and, most tellingly, Trump’s surprising victory, are all symptoms of backlash to the consequences of globalization.

You can’t turn back the clock, however much you may wish to. Current populist movements all succumb to the allure of nostalgia when they wish to have their cake and eat it too by enjoying all the benefits of globalization – relatively inexpensive cellphones, access to a massive diversity of inexpensive goods, etc. – without having to face the consequences of exporting many jobs.

But what if the clock moves even further forward, as a consequence of globalization? Globalization inadvertently helped exacerbate inequality, which in turn was further worsened by certain policy decisions, both monetary and fiscal. That doesn’t mean globalization is inherently bad – after all, doesn’t a white working-class man still enjoy a higher standard of living than a factory worker in Bangladesh, now? But as developed nations grew even richer and, eventually, the best-positioned nations to take advantage of globalization and ride the boom of being producer to unimaginably wealthy consumers, demographics began to change. Median ages crept older, as birth rates declined and immigration proved insufficient to stem the tide. Intriguingly, and as a result of one of the most ineptly cruel policy decisions of all time, even China faces a demographic shortfall due to its one child policy.

So as demographics shift, let’s presume that the conclusions put forth in the paper cited above are correct. Should labor become scarcer, its value will only rise. Consequently, technological advances that have been steadily if slowly progressing in the background that only further erode reliance on labor will become even more in demand. Increased automation of manufacturing processes will become even more widespread, rendered far more intelligent by the application of advanced artificial intelligence programs.

More importantly, they could well become localized. Why rely on overseas factories if it becomes cost-effective enough to make things domestically and reduce transportation costs? I am well aware that’s a significant supposition, and likely requires additional factors such as reduction in taxes, significant technological advances and perhaps even subsidies. But in many industries, I think many underestimate the extent to which they only rely on overseas labor simply because it is cheaper, currently. Once the intersection of human labor costs and labor-replacing machinery costs is reached, local production may well seem more reasonable. If the US was still the third-most prolific producer of cotton in 2016, for example, and a company such as Atlanta-based Sewbots can automate most clothing production, perhaps made in the USA won’t be as much of a signal of loftier prices.

Once centralized factors of production for many types of goods that once were located overseas are again located domestically, how much different will the status of globalization look? I’m not supposing trade will necessarily shrink by a massive amount – after all, natural resources are distributed inequally – as the flow of human capital and information via the Internet will continue, hopefully. But the world will lose one primary avenue of globalization, although as I said earlier, the clock can’t be turned back and cultural exportation and assimilation and, inevitably, ensuing backlash will continue.