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Information Sickness: How It Hurts Us And How to Escape

They call this the Information Age.

And for good reason.

If I take all of the information we have today, load it into CD-ROMs (who even uses those anymore?), and stack them, one by one, on top of each other, the pile I make would reach past the moon.

In The News: A User’s Manual, philosopher Alain de Botton claims that “more data flows into the building [of one major global news organization] in a single day than mankind as a whole would have generated in the twenty-three centuries between the death of Socrates and the invention of the telephone.”

That’s a lot of data.

But, as we all learned as kids with homework and Halloween candy, more of something does not always make it a good thing.

We humans are not built for today’s information-ridden, fast-paced world — there was no Instagram or cryptocurrency to be found out on the African savanna.

What does all this information do to us? In exchange for what we have gained, what is it that we have lost?

Source: XKCD

Information Fatigue

In the 1990s, the Oxford English Dictionary added a new word to its collection — information fatigue.

One commenter on Hacker News, I think, describes the feeling quite well:

My mind is in a constant racing state. It’s calm but not calm … My mind seems to have multiple levels. One of which is directed to what I am actively doing and one below it which seems to process information in a never ending manner. … Articles and books to read, shows to watch, things to do in my personal life and at work. Career advancement. All of these things just never stop … They just linger in the background. Shooting around saying me me.
It’s getting exhausting.

I know people who cannot stand to be separated from their phones, to be disconnected from the flood of information that spills out from the Internet. A simple human conversation leaves them nervous. First their legs start to twitch. A few minutes later, their eyes start to race around the room.

They have become cyborgs, and only another glance at their phone or smart device delivers a moment of false peace.

Stressed, Sick and Stupid Too

Overexposure to information doesn’t just stress us, it also makes us stupid.

We like to think more information means more knowledge and that knowledge, in turn, leads to smart decisions and a better life.

But this is not always the case. In Antifragile, ex-trader and philosopher Nassim Taleb writes:

“…in a natural environment, a stressor is information. Too much information would thus be too much stress, exceeding the threshold of antifragility.
“In medicine, we are discovering the healing powers of fasting, as the avoidance of the hormonal rushes that come with the ingestion of food. Hormones convey information to the different parts of our system, and too much of them confuses our biology. Here again, as with news received at too high a frequency, too much information becomes harmful — daily news and sugar confuse our system in the same manner.

In the past, information was rare and information was valuable. If a lion chases you, you pay attention.

But now, in the attention economy, everyone is fighting to be novel, to flash headlines at you, to shout that their bauble, trinket, or widget is more useful (and will make you sexier) than the next company’s… Everyone, everything wants to be a lion.

We are awash in a vast ocean of noise. Where has the signal gone?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
- T. S. Eliot

Some Solutions

“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” -Lao Tzu

Most of us, myself included, chase information without ever asking ourselves if we truly need it.

If overexposure to information often leads to worse decisions. If consuming it does not help us, our family, our community or our work, then perhaps it is okay to pause and take a break, to leave the ocean and spend a few moments alone in the sand.

Like the dieter that must be smart about where he gets his food, what he eats and how much of it, we can make smart decisions to limit and improve the quality of the information that enters our life.

What follows are some things that have worked for me.

Some tips:

  • Fast. Spend a weekend (or a week, if you can) away from technology. Give your laptop and phone to your grandmother and make her promise not to give it back. Go to the park. Roll around in the grass. Drink some wine. Chase the pigeons. Whatever.
  • Take long walks. I walk for 2–4 hours a day. This helps clear my mind after a long session of reading or writing. Even 30 minutes, I hear, works wonders.
  • Meditate. Don’t take it too seriously (don’t need the mumbo-jumbo), but spend some time alone with your own mind. Just 5 minutes is enough. If you cannot sit still for 5 minutes, that tells you a lot.
  • Journal. Take some time each day emptying your thoughts onto paper. Morning, evening doesn’t matter. I feel refreshed and more level-headed after I do.
  • Quit the news. I have avoided news and TV for the better part of 7 years now. The important stuff always makes it to me anyway.

And for consuming data:

  • Choose “high-signal” sources. The quality of the information you get will depends a lot on the source. Try to choose information sources that are actually useful to you (say, The School of Life over BuzzFeed)
  • Limit yourself. Accept that your brain can only take a certain amount of information per day. Make decisions with that in mind.
  • Read old things. The most useful, long-lasting ideas survive the test of time. Seneca’s Letters are just as practical today despite being nearly 2000 years old.

And, finally, whenever I start to suffer from information FOMO (fear of missing out), I return to the words of Michel de Montaigne…

“We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.”