Information Angst

There is altogether too much information in our lives today. In the past, people broadly chose one of two levels of broad information, by deciding to read or ignore the newspaper. Or listen to the radio or not. Information was never “pushed” at you – except for the rare occassions when newspaper boys ran around screaming “Extra, Extra!”. How much times have changed.

The big difference is that information flow is now continuous. World events are continuous by definition, but reporting used to be very discrete. You got the newspaper but once a day, or heard the news a couple of times on the radio. Now, with everything in “streaming” mode, reporting major events as they unfold makes for an incessant barrage of information, mostly unavoidable if our lives have a semblance of engagement with the world. So it has become harder to “get away from it all”.

Continuous information creates an insidious need to compare ourselves with everyone and everything, simply because we can. We want to know if we are richer, happier, healthier or just plain better-looking than some benchmark. Most often, in an effort to compare and feel better, we usually end up feeling worse. Maybe we would be better off avoiding making comparisons at all. But that is not our nature. We are competitive to a fault, and information overload translates swiftly into competitive angst.

Its automatic. We dont start out a session with our computers with the goal of doing anything else but channeling our curiosity. Sooner or later the engagement turns into one where bits of information that are self comparative start becoming salient, and drive the emotional course of this human computer interaction. Its inevitable, its hardwired. Its a bias we cannot rationalize away. I find that I am somewhat calmer and happier on the days when I eschew or minimize the interaction with the computer. Is it the same for you?

We have been brainwashed into believing that more information is better than less. It all sounds pretty rational – take a large superset of data or information, simply distill out the relevant parts to get a concentrate of pure valuable knowledge. We believe that this approach is more optimal relative to one in which we receive a smaller subset of possibly less relevant information. But, there are many ifs: (a) How good are we at distilling knowledge from large sets of data? (b) Do we get better or worse doing this when data sets increase relative to knowledge sets? (c) What about the cost of all this information processing? (d) And finally, if as a byproduct, the interaction results in heavy competitive angst, is it all really worth it?

I think we need to carefully evaluate how much information our lives should have. Information is necessary for sustenance of our modern lives, just as food is necessary for our bodies. But, just as we know that we need to be careful about eating in a balanced way, we want to be measured in our intake of information. Mental and emotional well-being is as critically related to our information diet, as balanced meals are to our physiques.

The hard problem is that we do know what a balanced diet is when speaking of food. We also know better to avoid some foods in excess. But with information, it is often hard to know its bad for you till after you have consumed it! So maybe we should just limit information intake more generally. That said, maybe you should not have read this?

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