An Information Diet

BLOG Information Sickness

william haefeli listening
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.

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7 Responses to An Information Diet

  1. David Parkinson says:

    Boy, does this ever encapsulate a lot of things we talk about in our house!The business about information being actionable is something that has making me crazy for a long time now. I cannot understand how so many people can continue to get by on a diet of depressing and non-actionable news. I’m on a number of local email lists, and so much of what gets people going are items designed to make people feel powerless and weak. Why do people pass this things along? It’s junk food for the mind and entrenches so much negative thinking and moral stalemate.A few people in my community are starting to come together around the idea of a group news/opinion blog, which we hope will supply information with the following characteristics:- timely- upbeat (as much as possible)- actionable- contextualized by a local orientation- aimed at positive change in the region- honest, not sold to advertisers- well-writtenWe’ll see how far we get, but we’re off to a pretty good start so far.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    THE challenge of this and future eras, notably in finding easy (as in accessible to more) and practical ways to use the information flows and chatter to illuminate, inform and support constructive action, as opposed to aimless, lame self-indulgence.

  3. Melinda says:

    In her book The Other Side of Language, A Philosophy of Listening, by Gemma Corradi Fiumara.After pointing out the dangers of what she calls a “logocentric” culture wherein too much emphasis is placed on the prestige of utterance and not enough on listening, she puts forward the idea that proper listening is in fact a kind of womb for facilitating the birth of new thought. Even (under the right circumstances) of a renewed person. The listener is a midwife of sorts, and can literally “hear” another person into being – particularly when that person is struggling to express new understandings of self & world. She particularly espouses a “rigorous” kind of listening in which one has to be carefully trained. The role of a teacher or parent in this context is, of course, beyond calculation. My favourate Fiumara quote is: “What is ‘un-hearable’ becomes ‘un-heard of’.”But don’t let me try to summarize a superb book filled with many complex and subtle thoughts. Read it.

  4. asdf says:

    Makes good sense for the most part Dave. I’m not sure though that we can bring everyone to the same intellectual/informational level of understanding/appreciation, and even if we get close, the status/snobbery on other difference(s)(ie gender,profession,age,wealth,race,religion,ingroup etc) will continue to poison communication. Also, could you explain your example for “tautological (e.g. that the AIG exec bonuses paid from taxpayer bailouts are immoral)” further? Seems to be the hot topic in the US right now with about a 95-5 split for the “immoral” side. What is your position here? Pardon me if I am not understanding the nuance.See for a quick example.Thank you.

  5. John Graham says:

    Yeah I’d like a little help with the bailout example too. I’m guessing it has something to do with sidestepping the immorality of the no-strings-attached bailouts themselves…but I can’t quite see the link with a definition of tautology.I’d like to tautoko(support) Melinda’s comment – it seems important.I’d like to recall what I think Chris Corrigan said in your interview with him: read for inspiration, not information.And I’d like to comment on “We mistake deciding for acting”: Yes and, perhaps we forget what a decision is. Decision IS action, cutting clean…Robert Bly writes of the tragedy of young men unable even to hold a sword, let alone wield it. No way can we escape our multiple addictions (including to being “informed”?), without decision. Perhaps, “We fool ourselves by making petty decisions on which opinion to wear, instead of taking responsibility for truly deciding”.

  6. Link says:

    A very good and thorough analysis like always! I have been going through almost the exact synopsis and realization recently. Actually, just about everything posted on this blog aligns so nicely with conclusions I’ve been making myself, but so so so much more eloquently put!Anyway, keep up the good work, your blog is that “information diet” we need, and I wish I found it a year or two ago when I had to cut through all the bullshit to find the same information as here in this blog.What I’m wondering is if that will be enough, or are there other steps we can take to help move things along? Like teaching openness, or how to live in the ways you mention throughout your blog. What I have found personally, is that people hold onto their current lives and do not want to change, because they do not have an alternative to fulfill their addictions, want the quick and easy fix (which their are none), seeing an easier and better way to do something without too much effort on their part (again extremely difficult because effort has to be made to change), and find support and comfort in their change (I know way too many people who want to be more sustainable, but do not have the everyday support to do so….which stems from feeling powerless in a society which teaches powerlessness)

  7. Paris says:

    Information sickness, is just as any other sickness: it strikes those who have a weakness.And that weakness is a limited brain information storage/filtering capacity!So depending on your intelectual abilities, you will be more or less afflicted by information sickness…I admit this disease seems strange to me, just as it seems strange to the slim overater that some other people are obese.

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