Dieting cavemen on twitter

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Clay Shirky thinks the big thoughts about information overload, and does a good job of it:

But, you know, you never hear twenty-year-olds talking about information overload because they understand the filters they’re given. You only hear, you know, forty- and fifty-year-olds taking about it, sixty-year-olds talking about because we grew up in the world of card catalogs and TV Guide. And now, all the filters we’re used to are broken and we’d like to blame it on the environment instead of admitting that we’re just, you know, we just don’t understand what’s going on.


It’s not so much that young people are smart and old people are scared. It’s that young people don’t have to unlearn all the stuff that old people do have to unlearn if we want to understand this world. And unlearning is just about the least fun activity in the world. So, you know, it’s easy to understand why people don’t want to sign up for it. But it’s also kind of pathetic that the people going around talking about information overload don’t stop to factor in the idea that if the twenty-year-olds aren’t complaining about information overload, it probably isn’t the problem we think it is.

Not everyone agrees. Samuel Fine said (in a comment to Aaron White),

Just because the youngsters are used to it doesn’t mean they aren’t worse off for it. They (and often, we) live in this world of static, useless fleeting tidbits of nothingness; we’re acclimating, sure, but the long view is that we’ll look back on, say, Twitter in 10, or 5, or 2 years and say, “Wait, what?” We’re fooling ourselves. WE don’t understand what’s going on. We’re just too deep in it to notice.

I have a theory about why people get so fat in modern America. We’ve developed evolutionarily to be very interested in fats and sugars. 10,000 years ago, if you found food high in calories, it was a really good strategy to eat as much of it as you could, because food like that was hard to come by. So people didn’t need a limiter on their intake, the environment provided it for them.

Fast forward to now, and the environment has changed drastically. Now the eat-all-you-can strategy is a really bad idea, and it leads to really fat people who don’t know when to stop.

I think we may be in a similar situation with information. People have a craving for information, whether it’s factual stuff like science, or emotional stuff like gossip. Information has been getting exponentially easier to distribute and consume. People’s natural strategy for information is, when you find some interesting information, eat it. 10,000 years ago, no one had to worry about how to limit their information intake. Now we really do.

As Shirky rightly points out, the internet didn’t do this to us, it was really TV that tipped us over the edge into junk-info overload, and the problem has been growing ever since the invention of the printing press. So the internet, and poster-children like Twitter don’t deserve particular attention, except for the fact that they are the fire hoses we deal with now.

The solution to the food problem is to be conscious of what you are eating, and have a plan, called a diet. Some foods are nutritious, and some are not, but you eat them anyway. You can decide.

The same is true for information. You have to decide what your information diet will be. I don’t mean diet as in a way to eat less, just a way to eat consciously. Bodies all work pretty much the same way, so authorities can give us pretty good guidelines (don’t eat too many sweets). But minds all work differently, so we each have to determine our own information diet. Perhaps reading all the latest on Brangelina is just what you need, or it’s part of your goals to confront stupidity.

A diet is a way to choose what you will eat, and what you won’t, what Shirky calls a filter. When people talk about information overload, they mean their filters aren’t working, usually because they’re not throwing enough away, but also perhaps because they don’t apply to all the channels they need to. Their diets need to be tuned, because they’re stuffing themselves.

And to make matters worse, in these information-rich times, we have to choose not just what to consume, but what to produce, because we all have tools within our reach.

Twitter is a lightning rod for these discussions because it’s kind of like blogging, but actually works very differently. I don’t know whether Samuel is right, that we’ll look back on Twitter as the CB radio for a new millennium.

What I do know is that the internet is chock-full of information, and we can’t simply belly up to the buffet and eat all of it. A bad info-diet won’t kill you like a bad food-diet will, but it can distract you or make you feel bad about your skills as an infovore. Think about how you approach the cornucopia of information, plan your info-diet. Eat smart.


The diet analogy seems like a terrible over-simplification of this problem, Ned. A real world diet consists of identifying the foods that are unhealthy and not eating them. This works, because the food "landscape" doesn't change. A peach is a peach, a Twinkie is a Twinkie, and there's very little genuinely new food made available. The decision making process for what your diet consists of is a one-time thing.

Information is very nearly the exact opposite. There is a constant stream of new information, none of it particularly well categorized. It's like going to a restaurant and supermarket where the food is always different, where you have to decide what to eat without ever seeing the food. The only way to know if it's what you want is to try it. Even if you don't spend a lot of time sampling the food (RSS feeds/blogs/whatever), you still spend a lot of time eating empty calories, trying to figure out which ones work for you. And you have to do it every day.

As for the generational differences, Shirky makes an interesting point, one that's a bit hard to refute. But I suspect young people just don't care quite so much about making efficient use of their time, which is why they're less stressed. If something is new and novel, but basically pointless, they see it as "new and novel". Older people see it as "pointless". Two value systems, not necessarily two different levels of expertise. You see this in the signal-to-noise content of the respective age-groups conversations. Younger people then to chatter about stuff that older people find repetitive or boring (due to already having those experiences).

My $.02.
Robert, I think the analogy holds further than you think. One doesn't say "ah, this is a completely new food, I wonder if it's unhealthy" each time a slight variation is encountered. We generalise each instance down to e.g. a fruit, a lollipop, a meat. You have a rough idea -- not that there aren't exceptions -- of how much you should intake of each "type".

Much the same with content. There are now millions of producers of content on the Internet, but I'm sure you could still label it with various tags such as personal blog, professional blog, gossip, news, fiction, and so on.

I'm not sure about your sampling analogy contradicts the original one for that matter. We mostly choose to try a new food because it sounds appetising -- the same with content.
@Robert K: actually, in the last century or two, there have been huge changes in food. High-fructose corn syrup, processed sugars, soft drinks, fried fast food, and so on, all of which have been blamed for obesity. Even where the food itself is the same as 200 years ago, its availability has changed. I guess I didn't make that point clearly enough...
Michael Bernstein 3:33 PM on 13 Jan 2009
More to the point Ned, some things like HFCS actually seem to promote caloric hoarding in the form of fat, even if you aren't eating more calories. Similarly, some forms of information seem to promote ADD- and OCD-like responses, even if the amount of information you're taking in doesn't change.

Keep in mind that our total sensory bandwidth is *identical* to previous generations, and we largely can't turn our sensorium off. So what's really going on is that we're exploiting existing channels (primarily vision) to transfer more *compressed* information into our brains, bypassing many existing filters. Thus, the forms that are succeeding in the marketplace are the ones that both bypass existing filters best, and keep us obsessively coming back for more, like a monkey with their pleasure center wired to a button they can push.

And always remember that some things simply cannot be unseen, once seen. It is really hard to 'unconsume' information (I'll refrain from adding any examples here).

I'm sure that we'll eventually get better defenses, both tools and memes, but considering how hard it has been to tackle the much slower moving problem of nutrition and obesity, it won't happen soon.
@Ned: I think you made your point just fine. I get that human evolution has failed to keep up with the need to "filter" the food and information that we are presented with. What I'm balking at is the idea that the solution to information overload is as simple as the solution to food overload. Is going on an "information diet" even meaningful? The problems may share a common cause, but they are very different in nature. (But whatever. Debating the validity of the food analogy is probably only worthwhile once we agree on the basic nature of the problem).

I was talking to a compatriot about the issue of information overload and how it's perceived by different generations. His take on it was that individuals experience increasing anxiety as they age because the way in which they process information changes. As a person gets older, they develop a more critical way of analyzing information. They are more concerned with the the context and meaning, and what implications it all has, in a way younger people aren't. This requires spending more time considering each "portion" of information, which is difficult in a world where the quantity of information is increasing exponentially.

By way of example(?) I'll point to the seminal novel, Future Shock, written two generations ago, when most of us were either not born or at most young teens. Information overload was a problem for the older generation then, but something none of us felt personally until we were in our thirties, and beginning to struggle with new forms of communication that we just didn't really "get" the point of. Did we struggle to adopt Wikipedia or blogging? Not really. But Twitter, MySpace, or Facebook? Those systems focus on social interaction, not meaning, which is why they are mostly ignored by older people that simply don't have the time for what is perceived by many as idle "chit chat", with little significant meaning.
I don't think it's quite fair to say that television was the tipping point toward information overload, and I think that you're not crediting the early Internet enough in that regard.

Prior to television, some major cities had two or three major daily newspapers, sometimes with multiple editions. And in the early days of television, most people had far more choices of radio stations within range than they did television stations, and most stations shut down overnight. As late as 30 yeras ago, while living in the New York Metro area I had just 7 channels to choose from, and at college in Hanover I had only 4.

Even cable systems started out with relatively few offerings, and HBO, MTV, CNN and TBS may have paved the way for dozens more cable offerings, but I wouldn't say that was a tipping point because most cable systems still had limited capacity. By 1984 or thereabouts I had potential access to 30ish stations, and within a couple of years I was occasionally using a VCR to time-shift programming, but it was pretty rare. I don't think cable really got to that point until a few years later for me, when the local cable system upgraded my tuner from a capacity of 30ish channels to somewhere over 100, although I only had 50 or 60 in my subscription, and far less that I was actually ever going to watch even once.

In fact, I think I can pin it down very closely: it was in 1992 that NBC offered a subscription to multiple cable channels for the Olympics. I subscribed, and still couldn't watch everything I wanted, so that's the point in television's evolution that I'd designate as a true tipping point. That's when the realization hit that no matter what I did, there was no way to ever catch up with all the information that I would find interesting.

But I know that I was already past the tipping point with Usenet before 1992. There were already too many newsgroups that I was interested in following in 1990 for me to possibly keep up with the traffic.
Shirky sure does set up plenty of straw men in that interview....

What's irritating about technologists like Shirky is that they're so in love with the technology that they severely downplay any potential problems in their new regime. And anyone who questions technological progress is at best afraid of change, and at worst a Luddite who thinks the past was the best.

I can attest to the Internet's ability to diminish attention spans. Because the signal-to-noise ratio on the Internet is vastly lower than even the worst library, individuals shoulder the burden of filtering out the crap. (Sturgeon's Law applied to the web ought to say that 99% of everything is crap) Shirky seems to think that collaborative filtering will solve the SNR problem, but so far, it's not good enough. We end up with the least common denominator, herd-wisdom, dreck (to say nothing of the vast echo chamber of the blogosphere).

Reading has become more difficult for me if only because I've grown to be suspect of everything I see on the net. Since it's hard to know just how crappy a given article may be, I end up skimming for any morsel of good information I can find. Once my brain is in the mode where it believes that most of the stuff it reads is likely garbage, my thoughts become fractured and less focused. Worse still, when I'm faced with genuinely good information (say, a classic novel or even a New Yorker essay), I find it hard to stick with the content. The filter is always running, looking for reasons to bail on the text. Think of it this way: you'd be crazy to read every Youtube comment as seriously as Shakespeare, and you'd probably go insane. But what happens when you encounter Shakespeare after being accustomed to filtering Youtube/Digg/reddit discussions? The best literature implores us to slow down and contemplate, but our modern lives, devoid of such novelties as librarians, publishers, editors, and experts, demands that we speed up and cut through noise with a machete. Contemplate, and be left behind.

Take reddit as an example (as you know, I read it quite a bit). If it's the evolution of discussion fora, then I'm a little afraid of the future of discussion on the net. The format of these news aggregators forces a finite limit on the amount of discussion — when the story moves off the front page, conversation all but stops. There can be vigorous, informative debates between passionate people, but after a day or so, it's all gone into the attic. Nobody ever goes back to old reddit threads to continue the conversation. There's no point because the discussion isn't visible, unlike in previous bulletin board systems. Reddit and Digg become the perfect places for trolls; the sites are almost designed for trolls because long-form discussions really aren't worth the effort considering the time-limits imposed from the designers. The level of conversation inevitably deteriorates as more people leave the site when they realize that the system punishes contemplation and rewards one-liners and lolcats.

We have unprecedented access to knowledge in addition to having the absolute worst information ever produced available at our fingertips. Technologists focus disproportionately on the former's potential than the latter's pitfalls. In their progressive quest, they murder the old information gatekeepers in favor of the all-powerful wisdom of the crowd. Journalists, librarians, publishers, teachers — these people are just roadblocks to information; fascists, even. Every new information medium has its cheerleaders, but the new cheerleaders ought to look back at the cheerleaders of old — the ones who forced radios, televisions, and VCR's into schools, for instance. Nobody looks back to the "good old days," when televisions replaced teachers and revolutionized learning (as the cheerleaders promised). They didn't replace teachers, and neither does the Internet today.

Technologists should face the fact that the SNR isn't getting much higher on the web, and the current attempts at increasing it (where "none of us is as dumb as all of us") aren't the magic bullet to information management. Sometimes you just need someone, an individual, smarter than you are, to help you on the path toward knowledge.

"...Twitter as the CB radio for a new millennium."

Great quote. I wonder how many Twitter users know what a CB radio is, much less have used one in this context? ;)

"Bodies all work pretty much the same way, so authorities can give us pretty good guidelines (don't eat too many sweets). But minds all work differently, so we each have to determine our own information diet."

I'm still curious why you'd think that minds work so differently from each other. I'd argue that absolutely nobody needs to know about Brangelina. If one can survive (by that I mean: learn and grow as a person) subsisting only on celebrity gossip, then that would be just as shocking as the guy who has survived only on hamburgers.

Your analogy seems a little strange. You're implying that one should heed the advice of nutritional authorities, but when it comes to the diet of the brain, only the individual can decide how much crap is enough to consume. Is that because, as you say: "A bad info-diet won't kill you like a bad food-diet will"?

A bad info-diet certainly won't kill you, physically, but I think it stands a chance of stunting your mental growth.

@Dave: these are a lot of great thought. Thanks for taking the time to contemplate! You seem to enormously dislike reddit, why do you read it? This is exactly the kind of choice people need to make for themselves. Perhaps you just need to stay away from the comments?

I find in my own infodiet that there are things I read when I want to read, and other sources I use when I just want to surf, usually when I am lower on energy. Reddit definitely falls into the surf category.

I don't know what to think about the signal-to-noise problem on the internet. Clearly, it's very low, the question is whether it's hugely worse than in previous times as people say. One problem with reflecting on the past is that we only remember the memorable parts. For all the novels of Dickens that we cherish, there were hundreds of other hacks also being paid by the word to churn out Victorian soap operas. We don't have access to them, though, because they were crap, and got left behind. So now when we look back on literature, we see Dickens standing almost alone in his genre.

About my mind/body analogy: I guess I shouldn't have said, "all minds work differently", what I meant was that food has one purpose: to nourish and fuel the body, and bodies react similarly to food. But minds have different purposes for information. I can sit shoulder-to-shoulder with a rabid Red Sox fan who devours every scrap of information about the team and players. If he spends an hour every day doing that, he's happy. I (a non-follower of the team) would consider that an hour wasted. We each have different goals, and need to have different infodiets. His would include ESPN, mine would not. We each need to choose consciously.

Add a comment:

Ignore this:
Leave this empty:
Name is required. Either email or web are required. Email won't be displayed and I won't spam you. Your web site won't be indexed by search engines.
Don't put anything here:
Leave this empty:
Comment text is Markdown.