Drowning in a Sea of Information
A personal account and analysis of information overload.
Information overload is something that’s been plaguing me for a while. It was only recently that I decided to take the time to understand why my brain doesn’t work the way it used to. I needed to do this to understand myself. The first step in admitting you have a problem is understanding that problem. I have an information problem. This is a millennial’s quest to understand information overload while struggling against it. Here’s everything I’ve learned.
Try to remember the last time your phone was not the first thing you reached for in the morning. I can’t recall a time when it wasn’t.
Every morning my alarm goes off at 6:30 am. Before I lug my sluggish body from under the security of my warm sheets, I reach for my phone, pull it up inches away from my face, and start scrolling through whatever I missed overnight. This is not only the beginning of my morning routine, but also a routine behavior throughout the rest of my day — obsessively checking, collecting, and consuming content until I close my eyes and try to disconnect my brain for the night. This behavior is called Infomania, which is defined as “the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information, typically via cell phone or computer.”
Infomanics like myself are likely to feel the effects of information overload, a phenomenon caused by overdosing on information, which reportedly developed as early as the 3rd century BC, when writing allowed us to record and preserve information longer than memory. Information overload is a mentally, and physically, taxing condition. Symptoms include sluggish thinking, a flitting mind, and stifled creativity.
After a long day of digital consumption, I feel spent. Yet no matter how overloaded or exhausted I feel, I keep going back for more knowledge, more updates, more memes, more content. But I’m not retaining any of it. Rather than meaningfully absorbing information, I’m consuming as much of it as I can, as often as possible — feeding the FOMO, if you will. Everyday seems like a struggle to find the right information-life balance.
In order to understand why I struggle with information overload, I thought I’d start by analyzing the underlying cause.
Understanding the Cause
If infomania had a recipe, it would call for two parts basic human need and one part steady progression of technology. Here’s why: according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are five stages of needs that motivate humans. Two of these stages, social connection and self-actualization (specifically the pursuit of knowledge) make it clear why we’re addicted to the Internet. The internet more than satisfies these needs by providing an unlimited connection to family and friends, lovers and life partners, thoughts, ideas, theories, opinions, data, and other invaluable resources. It’s the perfect solution — social connection and endless knowledge on demand. Additionally, we continuously create new ways to extend the internet’s overall benefit to our lives through new devices and applications. Now it travels with us everywhere: in our pockets, on our wrists, in our cars and appliances, and even within our bodies (though the latter is not quite mainstream yet). Technology is so deeply integrated within society and culture, that modern human functionality depends on it for virtually every aspect of our lives.
With every minute that passes, the holy grail of information quickly becomes an inescapable vortex of information. To give you an idea of how much debt I’m in personally, the following is a recent ledger of my own information vortex:
- There are 380 backlogged links in my Pocket account (that’s after spring cleaning).
- I subscribe to 37 podcasts (of which I only actively listen to 6 — I’ll get to those other 30 eventually).
- I subscribe to 17 newsletters.
- I follow 67 RSS feeds (of various subjects, though many repost the same content).
- I browse 7 different social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, and Medium (also consider how many sources I follow on each)).
- I currently have 61 tabs stored in my OneTab chrome extension for future reference.
Note: These numbers are subject to daily change.
That’s a lot of information for one person to keep track of and it’s actually a very stressful task that we all subject ourselves to. If I had to estimate, I’d say that I spend about 75% of my day consuming information from these sources — and that’s being conservative.
In their 2013 How Much Media? report, the University of Southern California’s Institute for Communication Technology Management stated that by 2015 “it is estimated that Americans will consume both traditional and digital media for over 1.7 trillion hours, an average of approximately 15 and a half hours per person per day.” That’s the better half of a day spent consuming content. This estimation was made over three years ago, and we’re already a year past the estimation date, so it would be safe to assume that the current average must be higher than originally estimated.
All of this consumption is made possible by the vastness of the internet. There is an estimated total of about 4.2 billion web pages that call the internet home, with the big four (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook) sharing about 1.2 million terabytes of that information between them. To make this a little more tangible, a study from the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics found that it would take 2% of the Amazon Rainforest to make the paper to create a printed hard copy of the internet.
Is it even possible to absorb that amount of information and use it meaningfully? Paul Reber, a professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, says no. He asserts that “there’s this bottleneck coming from our senses into our memory…the information we’re experiencing comes in faster than the memory system can write it all down.” Even though experts estimate that our brain is physically capable of storing a couple petabytes of memory (or one million gigs), the average brain is mentally unable to retain all the information it is exposed to on a daily basis. In fact, we only meaningfully store and use 50% of that daily information according to Dr. Dimitrios Tsivrikos, Consumer and Business Psychologist at University College London.
It’s an intoxicating feeling to know that I have an indispensable source of knowledge at my fingertips that I can use to my advantage anytime, anywhere. But the simple fact that the average person doesn’t have the mental capacity to utilize this invaluable resource to its full potential makes me question its connotations as a driving force of our society and culture — I’ve found that there’s a true devilishness to the way it can alter the inner workings of the mind.
Understanding the Effects
Now that I know the extent to which I’m drowning in information, the next question is: what is all this information doing for me — or rather, doing to me? Some, like Nicholas Carr, the best-selling author of The Shallows, argue that it’s making us stupid. Carr believes that technology and the Internet are instruments of intentional distraction. As they speed up the flow of information, the mind adapts to keep up by hastening cognition, which in turn shortens the attention span. This leaves no time for the mind to meaningfully absorb the information and leads to a frayed cognitive state. Hardly the ideal mental situation in a culture boasting knowledge at your fingertips. I can’t say I disagree with Carr completely, though I wouldn’t say technology is making us stupider, but that technology’s promises of effortlessness is making us complacent.
As a kid, I was able read the Harry Potter series front to back. Now, it’s just as Carr asserts: “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” It seems that my infomania has taken a toll on my sense of concentration. I can’t focus on an article for more than a few minutes at a time without checking my phone or opening a new Chrome tab and disappearing into a click hole of links. I have to consciously force myself to finish reading a piece longer than 500 words. I have a habit of scrolling to the end of an article to determine how much more reading I have left, and ultimately to decide if I plan on finishing the article, skimming it, or just moving on. You might be able to relate, considering that, on average, readers are rarely able to complete an entire article. In a study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group, it was found that:
“…the average page view contained 593 words. So, on average, users will have time to read 28% of the words if they devote all of their time to reading. More realistically, users will read about 20% of the text on the average page.”
That means, if statistics persists, most of you probably won’t make it through this entire article. Don’t worry, I won’t blame you. Today we are plagued by external and internal interruptions. At some point while you’re reading this, you’ll probably receive some sort of mobile notification to pull your focus away (external). Or maybe you’ll lose interest altogether and move on or check your phone and catch up on social media (internal). Let’s face it, you’ll probably end up checking your phone subconsciously on multiple occasions while reading this article, even if you don’t have a clear purpose for using your phone. Don’t believe me? According to Business Insider, an average iPhone user unlocks their phone 80 times per day, while an Android user unlocks theirs 110 times a day, which translates to once every ten minutes or so — for no reason, other than out of habit. To add to that, the average attention span in 2015 was 8.25 seconds — .75 seconds less than a goldfish (9 seconds), probably one of least conscious life forms I can think of.
Judging from these statistics, technology and its constant flux of information are significantly shaping cognitive abilities to function as efficiently and instantly as they do. The resulting mental state is described as chronic distraction.
Distraction follows me no matter what I’m doing. Notifications of the information I’m missing out on constantly pepper my attention, enticing me to disappear into the depths of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and Digg, to uncover more thoughts, ideas, and inspirations. Because of this, I can seldomly focus on one task without getting lost in another as my mind flits from one idea to the next without warning. One moment I’m working on this piece in a fit of inspiration, the next I’m researching a new topic for another piece, and ultimately end up working on the logo design for one of my projects.
Gloria Mark, a professor from the Department of Informatics at the University of California, puts this behavior into perspective. Her studies on interruption demonstrate that we learn to expect regular interruption and distraction; therefore, we speed up our minds in order to compensate. It turns out that a person switches tasks every three minutes (with roughly half of these switches caused by self-interruption) and entire projects every ten and a half minutes on average. Conversely, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus on a task or project. Couple this with our unnervingly short attention span — it’s a wonder that we get anything done around here.
To combat this, I made a habit of writing down my impromptu ideas and to-dos as they come to mind, in an attempt to tackle one task at a time. I am now the proud owner of a heavily backlogged “potential article/blog topics” list and multiple other running to-do lists. Instead of increasing my productivity, I found that writing these ideas down buries me deeper into idea debt. With each additional item added to the list, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage my priorities, as my attention flutters back and forth between tasks. Each new idea causes my priorities to shift, pushing yet another task further away from completion.
An Absent Mind
In addition, each uncompleted task and newly developed idea takes a toll on my memory capacity. Lately, I tend to forget things I’ve done or said within a few minutes of having done or said them. I often find myself losing my train of thought, resulting in unusually long “um’s” and pauses during conversations, prompting inquisitive looks from the participant. I also find that I repeat myself more often (as my girlfriend can attest) and small, habitual tasks, like locking the front door, are forgotten among the many to-do’s swirling around in my head. For instance, the other day I was reminded of a hilarious moment I shared with one of my bestfriends, and as I began to tell the story, my girlfriend stops me mid sentence and says “I know, you’ve told me this story a thousand times.” Or one of the many times when I couldn’t remember if I locked the door of my fourth floor apartment, so I climbed four flights of stairs to find that the door was, in fact, securely locked. I was late to work on each of these occasions.
I’ve found, to my relief, that this feeling of self-induced amnesia is grounded in the Zeigarnik effect — the tendency to experience subconscious, nagging mental reminders to tie up loose ends. Bluma Zeigarnik, the psychologist whom this phenomenon was named after, successfully demonstrated that people are more inclined to recall uncompleted tasks; therefore, completed tasks are lost among the uncompleted.
Tim Harford, author of “Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century,” states:
“We flit from task to task to task because we can’t forget about all of the things that we haven’t yet finished. We flit from task to task to task because we’re trying to get the nagging voices in our head to shut up.”
You could say that our brains, like most technology, work in conditional loops (if’s and then’s) to complete tasks. Every time we start a new task, we open a new loop in our minds that cannot close until certain criteria have been met. It’s just a part of the technologically inclined life we live, says Harford:
“Modern life is always inviting us to open more of those loops. It isn’t necessarily that we have more work to do, but that we have more kinds of work that we ought to be doing at any given moment. Tasks now bleed into each other unforgivingly. Whatever we’re doing, we can’t escape the sense that perhaps we should be doing something else. It’s these overlapping possibilities that take the mental toll.”
Lastly, I’ve found that information overload affects my creative process. The constant noise increases stress, frustration, and mental effort, but most of all, it decreases my ability to think deeply. My thoughts have become superficial, which stifles my ability to produce original, creative thinking.
Personally, I can argue that the overwhelming amount of content, and the similarity of it all, makes it very difficult to effectively channel my creativity. As a writer, consuming multiple pieces a day is, in its own way, discouraging. I often find myself doubting my own abilities as a writer, because I feel like I have to mimic the styles and topics of other writers in order to draw attention to myself. I’ve found that it’s hard to formulate original ideas when I’m buried in inspiration; the more of the same that you consume, the more of the same you will create. For instance, you could probably consider this article another syndication of the same thoughts before it. Information overload is an out-played topic, yet I still feel the need to share my ideas with you. Not because I have something completely original to share, but because I have the means to share it.
But how is that possible? How can creativity be stifled by the very thing that grants the creative opportunities we have today? Technology is widely regarded as the provider of the means to create. I don’t disagree with that, but consider the following:
Technology allows anyone to create “quality” work with overwhelming ease. Today, anyone can be creative, enabled by technologies that do much of the creative work for us. In TheLong+Short article “The Filter Bubble,” Rhodri Marsden asserts that the idea of this creative renaissance enabled by these technologies “seems a bit hollow” as we take credit for creativity produced by technological ingenuity in the form of templates, filters, and other predetermined structures. The ease with which we are enabled to create, ultimately warps the perception of what creativity really is — the ability to turn original ideas into reflective, human experiences that inspire more ideas. Technology also allows everyone to showcase their work. With its widespread connectivity and the exponential growth of content afforded by technological ingenuity, the internet instills a subconscious how-to guide for creating, which means that true creativity can be easily washed away by the waves of homogeneity.
How can you be creative if your creative abilities come by technology and all your inspiration is essentially the same?
In addition, the rate at which information is created and shared, dictates the rate at which it is consumed. This encourages a shallow culture that skims, snips, and divides content into small “digestible” pieces that lack depth, all while utilizing technology as a creative crutch to create said content. This leaves no room for creative expansion. For example, a tweet is restricted to 140 characters, which limits my ability to expand on an idea. I find myself struggling to shorten tweets because, more often than not, my thoughts extend way past 140 characters. My mind has adapted to the digital age’s concise method of reading and writing, rather than deeper, creative thinking.
The Take Away
A few months ago I took part in Infomagical, an experiment hosted by the WNYC podcast Note to Self. The purpose of this experiment is “to turn all of your information portals into overload-fighting machines.” It worked. After a full week of information consumption challenges and monitoring my progression, I felt clear, focused, organized, and more creative. I felt like someone took my brain and wrung it out like a wet sponge — refreshed and ready to tackle the next thing. I had finally taken charge of my information problem. After all this time of sluggishly dragging my brain around in a fog, forcing it to consume copious amounts of information whenever technology told me to, all I had to do was unplug and reevaluate what I wanted to gain from the information I was consuming.
Though, I must stress that I am by no means cured of my information addiction. I’ve fallen victim to infomania a few times since completing Infomagical, but now I know how to keep the “cravings” under control. I don’t think information overload is something that can be solved — it’s something that needs to be managed. And in order to manage something effectively, you have to understand how it works.
In today’s digital culture, we are embedding technology into everything in order to make life more effective and productive, rendering it practically inescapable. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the consequences of our actions. There is no doubt that there are unfathomable benefits to technology (you wouldn’t be reading this if there weren’t), but it is important to know when to unplug, recharge, and reinstate our human-ness. As with everything in our lives it all comes down to balance. In my journey to the ending of this article, I’ve realized that technology only controls you if you let it. As Adam Gopnik states in “The Information”:
“Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them. Our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos, and we mostly live by those.”
There are hundreds of ways to disconnect and take a break from the information, so I won’t waste my time explaining that. I’ll also say that as someone who’s very dependent upon technology, I’m not exactly following my own advice. The key is not disconnecting, but understanding why we need to disconnect: to appreciate the constant of life as it is without technology. I believe that understanding this while filtering out the unnecessary can lead to a more satisfying type of inspiration and insight than you could ever find beneath the digital sea of information we call the internet.