Drowning in Data: When News is Noise

It’s hard enough to read online, let alone write online. So how do you cultivate creativity when you’re facing a flood of information?


It’s never been easier to be productive, but it’s also never been harder. With technology and a flood of information at my fingertips every time I turn on an Internet-connected device, my resolve crumbles. I reflexively click on headlines and tab upon tab opens with tantalising news. This is why Woody Allen never bought a computer (sticking instead with his trusty typewriter) and still churns out a feature-length film every year.

But not all of us are fortunate to have assistants to digitise our scripts. Given the patience and time required, I’m sure we could all transcribe ourselves. But it makes sense to take what is supposed to be the easy route. However, it’s not digital devices that cause problems — it’s what they enable you to do once you log on. And herein lies my dilemma.

The Internet is a black hole of information, sucking me in with its digital distractions. It’s not just me — Internet inactivity is such an epidemic that there is now the notion of a Slow Web — a direct response to the glut of information thrust at us.

‘Slow Web’
Illustration by
Sarah Gooding.

Sure, you can disable your connection or retreat to a cabin in the woods. But who wants to do that? As a writer with an Internet connection, I find my ultimate challenge is to reign in my Google trigger finger, and ramp up my writing. I can have it all; I just have to have self-control.

Easier said than done.

Writers need to keep up with the times. For fear of falling behind and finding myself faking cultural literacy, I spend hours opening and bookmarking browser pages of news, blogs, studies, reviews, essays… Then there’s tweets, posts, grams, pins… It becomes like a game — how fast can I speed-read? And then how quickly and convincingly can I disseminate these articles and my opinions on them through social media?

The rush of speed-reading in an attempt to get through it all gives way to fatigue. Did I conquer that newsfeed, or did it conquer me? Explaining pieces I’ve skim-read to others can be difficult. How much can one retain when reading so urgently?

‘Totally buggin’’
Illustration by
Sarah Gooding.

In these times of feeling intellectually bloated, I’ve realised I need to reclaim control of my reading and writing online. Technology and creativity aren’t intrinsically linked, but one can certainly help the other. But some technology hinders the ability to read and retain information. With infinite scroll, that sense of accomplishment from reaching the end of something is rare. You can find yourself becoming fixated on getting to the end of a feed instead of focusing on the content you’re consuming.

Kane Bennett argues that “when there is always something new to read, or something new to know, our appetite for information can never be left unsatisfied”. Yet it can also never be satisfied, because you never get to the end. But there are tactics you can try when tackling the rising tide.

‘Drowning,
not browsing’
Illustration by
Sarah Gooding.

Consume content thoughtfully

Focus on value, not volume. Approach reading logically, with an aim to consciously learn about topics instead of absentmindedly flicking between them. Treat it like a course, but set your own curriculum. On that note…

Employ the experts

Utilise the experts in your fields of interest by following them on social media and reading their blogs or columns. Subscribe to top quality news aggregating e-newsletters such as Nieman Lab or MediaREDEF, if journalism’s your jam. Seek out a trusted few to follow — the rest is noise.

Go easy on the infinite scroll

Don’t shimmy down the page so fast that you can’t grasp the subject matter. You’ll find yourself at the end of a feature wondering what you just read. You’ll also probably have even less chance of retaining any information you did absorb.

Keep tabs on your activity

Don’t have too many tabs open at once. This is probably easier said than done and also such a basic suggestion. But if you’re anything like me, it’s a necessary reminder.

We don’t have to drown in data; it’s a matter of balance. As Mikael Cho writes, you need to integrate “doses of mindful consumption” in your creative process. Keyword: mindful. I’m going to keep quietly cultivating creativity online while reading as much as possible. Reading is fuel for writing – as long as one activity doesn’t absorb the other.