Information has never been easier to access than it is today. All we have to do is go on our phones, type a question into google and we are presented with millions and millions of results.
A wealth of information is at our fingertips and although it may seem like a good thing, that is not necessarily the case.
Throughout human history the amount of information available was scarce. Go back one thousand years and we were not aware of the existence of America and Oceania.
It may not sound like much, but considering the sheer amount of information we have available about our planet today, it is a big change.
Every two days we create as much information from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. That is an incredible amount of data!
Our brains have not evolved to process such large amounts of information. Nowadays, we can find out what happened on the other side of the globe with a few searches on the internet, whereas a millennia ago, we were unaware of the existence of much of the wider world!
This is a problem in more ways than one. In today’s interconnected world it is arguable that you need to be informed about events that take place on the other side of the globe, but do we?
Do we really need to know about the domestic affairs of a country if we live on the other side of the planet? It’s hard to argue that we do.
The other problem is what we do with all this information. There is no point in consuming information for the sake of it. I don’t need to know the weather forecast in Beijing if I live in England.
Our access to information is not going to change, so it stands to reason that we must change our attitude towards information instead.
In a world that is becoming noisier and noisier and by the day, we must be careful about which pieces of information we choose to consume
With so much information available to us it can be hard to know where to turn and how much to consume. The inclination is to try and consume as much as possible, so that we know more about everything but is this a good strategy?
Humans lived in small tribes for thousands of years. Interactions with other tribes were not as common as they are today and nowhere near as peaceful as the interactions we have today.
The information they had about the other tribes in their surrounding area, never mind the planet would have been minimal.
Even one hundred years ago, the amount of information the average person had access to was not overwhelming. News around the globe often took a few days to make its way around the world, as opposed to the almost instant documentation of events as they occur today.
We were much more ignorant of what happened in the world, but was it a problem? Did the average person in the UK one hundred years ago need to know what was happening on the West Coast of America?
It’s hard to argue that they did. Our ancestors survived without the overload of information we have available now and they managed just fine. However, they did remain ignorant about a large number of things.
The explosion of information is good in the sense that we simply have more access to it. The majority of us are able to access this information wherever we want and whenever we want.
This is in stark contrast to the situation hundreds of years ago, where information was only available to a certain section of society. In this regard, the opening up of information is a good thing.
However, it comes with a cost. The explosion of information creates a gigantic problem, namely, what should and shouldn’t we pay attention to.
Good Info and Bad Info
When considering the age of information overload, it is important to acknowledge this quote from the American economist Herbert Simon:
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
The issue with the availability of information is knowing which information to pay attention to. With so many news outlets and websites competing for your eyeballs, it’s hard to know where to turn.
This presents a number of problems. The first one is that our attention span will decrease as a result of having too much access to information. As it’s impossible to process it all in an efficient manner, we become less and less attentive the more we process.
Over time, this leads to our attention span decreasing and our ability to concentrate on one thing diminishes, as we are constantly searching for new things to occupy our mind.
The other problem is the information itself. In the past, the flow of information was regulated to some degree. There were only certain places we could get the information from and there were processes involved before it was spewed out.
Sure the newspapers and magazines of the past were not perfect, they would have produced a few questionable pieces along the way, but on the whole, they had standards to uphold.
Fast forward to today and the landscape has changed drastically. The traditional gatekeepers of information have been shunted aside and now anyone with access to the internet can publish anything they want.
This creates a big problem. How do we know what we should pay attention to and what we shouldn’t? Yes, the traditional publishing houses are still presents, but their dominance is being challenged by new players in town.
With so many people competing for your attention, it is often the most dramatic and eye-catching headlines that grab it. Once we are sucked into the void of these websites it can be hard to free ourselves from it.
Information is not going anywhere, if anything, it will become more and more available as time passes. Instead, we must recognise that we are responsible for the information we consume and take steps to limit how much and the quality of that information.
If information is everywhere, then how do we stop it from overloading our lives? The answer is simple. We have to put measures in place to help us.
One of the easiest you can do is to limit the amount of information you consume. There are certain things you have no choice but to pay attention to, such as emails from work, messages from your family, but a lot of other things are just noise.
By recognising that we can’t consume every drop information out there, we free ourselves up to do much more with our time.
We can set up filters to block unnecessary pieces of information reaching us. Set up filters on your email, unsubscribe from newsletters that do not bring you value and block websites that you don’t want to access.
One of the best ways to avoid information overload is to consume less news. The majority of it does not affect us directly and is designed to create outrage.
Yes, there are certain pieces you should follow such as domestic affairs, but you’ll be surprised how you can cope and how much better you’ll feel when you consume less news.
However, perhaps the easiest way to consume less information is to spend less time on your phone. It’s easy to get sucked into the void of nothingness that can exist on your apps and web and browse numerous Facebook posts and Instagram stories.
Do any of them really improve your life? Do you really need to know what that person you met the other week is up to?
These apps are designed to suck your attention and keep you on their interface for as long as possible. They are designed to prevent boredom when boredom isn't as bad as we think.
That is a huge chunk of time that could be better spent. The next time you go to consume a piece of information or pick up your phone, ask yourself, do I really need to.
More often than not, the answer is likely to be no.