William Haefeli cartoon in The New Yorker; buy his stuff here
Way back in pre-Internet, pre-cellphone 1981, Ted Mooney wrote a novel called Easy Travel to Other Planets that described a disease called information sickness, a manifestation of information overload that leaves its victims disoriented and numbed to the meaning of what they are taking in. There is some palpable evidence that this disease is now upon us:
- People in groups talking and preparing their responses, but not listening, so that to the observer it is as if everyone in the group is thinking out loud to him/herself, as if the other people in the room or on the line weren’t there at all in real time, as if what they were saying were in an article or blog post that had been written some time in the past.
- People thinking they have communicated when they have not. Try this exercise: After a speaker has made his/her presentation, go and ask five people in attendance what they thought the most important point in the presentation was. Then relay this to the speaker. I can almost guarantee you the speaker won’t believe you. Or another exercise: Have two people at a presentation or meeting keep a mindmap of what was discussed and agreed upon, and then compare them. No one will believe they were ‘recordings’ of the same event.
- People making nonsensical and vapid but brilliantly rhetorical speeches that flatter or reassure their completely gullible and non-critical audience that they (the audience) are doing/have done something wonderful, and getting a standing ovation in response.
- People writing florid and inflammatory criticism that is totally ad hominem, logically flawed, tautological (e.g. that the AIG exec bonuses paid from taxpayer bailouts are immoral) or otherwise devoid of any critical value (e.g. anything said by Rush Limbaugh), and having readers (or listeners) proclaim the blather as genius.
- People thoughtlessly interrupting, changing the subject, and forgetting what they were saying.
- The fact that the “most e-mailed” articles and Op-Eds are usually neither actionable nor thought-provoking (so why are people e-mailing them?)
- The fact that e-mail is reducing productivity, when it was supposed to improve it. And don’t get me started on the purpose, clarity and brevity of most e-mail.
- The fact that the substance of most works of non-fiction can be effectively captured in a couple of pages, and that the best-selling fiction authors (Grisham, Brown etc.) are verbose and terrible writers.
The fact that we’re writing and talking more, less succinctly, less coherently, less thoughtfully, less attentively, and really reading and understanding less, is just part of the the information sickness tragedy. What we do (and don’t do) with the ‘information’ we have gleaned compounds the tragedy:
- We still make decisions in an information vacuum: Example: uninformed (or misinformed) and overpaid ‘experts’ and executives make flawed decisions that their sycophants declare to be brilliant, but which are actually ineffectual (or worse), or not even implemented (instead, they’re “worked around” by front line employees who know better what’s really needed).
- We take actions that, in the long run, have no effect: Example: consultants are handsomely rewarded for recommending and/or making changes in organizations, when six months or five years later there is often no evidence the change brought about any improvement, or indeed that the change was still in effect (or had been implemented in the first place).
- We take actions in spite of information showing them to be unwise: Example: being swayed by people with money or power, or emotional influence, to do what we know to be suboptimal or worse.
- We get paralyzed by information: Sometimes we get so much conflicting information that we end up taking no action at all.
- We act on false dichotomies: Thanks to our inattentiveness, lack of time, and media oversimplification, we decide on one of two alternatives, when the truth is more complex and neither alternative is appropriate.
- We mistake deciding for acting: We think deciding that something is right, is sufficient, without actually doing something about it.
- We get persuaded to give our proxy for action to someone else: By voting for someone we don’t really know, or signing a petition, we think we’ve discharged our responsibility to do something that makes a difference.
- We get persuaded that everything’s OK when it isn’t: We’re so overwhelmed that it is tempting to believe Lomborgians who deny there is a problem, or who tell us “don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it for you”.
- We get persuaded that there’s nothing we can do: Those vested in the status quo will try to persuade us there is no alternative, that the result is inevitable, that it’s only a matter of time, so why bother trying to do anything?
Change management ‘experts’ will tell you that to bring about behaviour change you have to do one of three things: (a) change mandatory processes, (b) change the technology people use, or (c) change the culture/attitudes/beliefs/values. I know a lot of people who’ve worked in organizations for more than a quarter century, and they tell me that (a) process is dead — there are no standard processes anymore, so you can’t ‘change’ them, (b) people will simply refuse to use technology that makes them do things they find ineffective or unintuitive, and (c) the only way you can change an organizational ‘culture’ is by firing everyone and hiring all new people who agree with a proposed change.
There’s also a lot of evidence that technologies, even those that seem in the short run to be ushering in great improvements in our lives or activities, inevitably cause more problems than they solve.
What’s the point of all this information, overloading us to the point of illness, if it doesn’t help us change for the better? What’s the point of being informed if it doesn’t help us do things better, or do better things? Is information getting in the way of learning and understanding, and conversation in the way of communication and appreciation?
The purpose of communication in all species, it seems to me, is to build trust, learn (and teach) capacities and learn about others’ capacities (for purposes of collaboration, survival and innovation). One-way communication of information (reading, watching, listening) is also about learning capacities and about learning about others; it’s also, to some extent, about entertainment — an audience activity. One problem is that the major media — TV, radio, and even the press and publishers — have found it cheaper and more lucrative to provide entertainment than to provide information, to the point that most of the stuff we are fed now has almost no information value at all.
How much of the information we process every day, and the communications we participate in (with varying degrees of engagement), actually provides us with useful (actionable) knowledge and useful capacities? Very little, I would argue. Just as most of our processed and ‘fast’ foods give us mostly empty calories and nothing of nutritional value (and lots that is toxic), so too, most of our information ‘diet’ is empty entertainment, designed to make us feel better without actually making us intellectually ‘healthier’ (and sometimes making us intellectually unhealthy).
Perhaps what we need, then, as a cure for our information sickness, the ‘bloat’ of information overload, is an information diet — less overall, more slowly and carefully selected and ingested. Michael Pollan’s advice for food consumers is “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. Perhaps our advice for information consumers should be “obtain actionable and thought-provoking information, be selective (don’t overindulge), and ensure adequate context”.
I’ll have a New Yorker please. And a side of Robert Pinsky.