Information overload

Information overload

We live in world that suffers from too much choice and too much information. I imagine most of us would easily agree with that, and it’s not too difficult to prove. Just take a walk in your local supermarket and see the number of messages and choices you are presented with. Simply the breakfast cereal aisle is a bewildering assault of colours, eye-catching designs and sheer number of options. Apparently, back in 1976, the average supermarket stocked around 9,000 items. Today the average supermarket stocks a staggering 40,000 items. Yet we get 85% of our weekly shop from only 150 items!

We are surrounded every day with a huge array of choice and information. Actually this is not a new problem.

In 1525, Erasmus’ wrote a tirade about the “swarms of new books” that he saw arriving all around him (thank goodness he didn’t have Amazon!) In the seventeenth century, René Descartes complained that “even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live in this life and more effort to select the useful things than to find them oneself.” One can only speculate about what Descartes might have thought about the internet.

Information overload is not a new phenomenon. But we must also recognise that there is an unprecedented amount of information today

We have shifted from a society based on industry to a society based on information. Because of this, the amount of information generated and transmitted has increased astronomically. And the dawn of the Internet has only fueled that trend.

Something like 300 million words are tweeted on Twitter each day. That’s the­ equivalent of 4,500 books. Information amounting to more than a person could read in a lifetime is transmitted and received every single day across only one platform.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand.” If we don’t understand it, we also cannot consume all that the internet holds or generates. In 2002 there were 5 exabytes (1 billion gigabytes) of new information created, and 23 exabytes both recorded and replicated. Now, we record and transmit that level of information every week. That is information overload on an unprecedented level that would blow the minds of Erasmus and Descartes! But is that such a bad thing?

The problem is that in our modern society, the amount of information has increased enormously, yet our ability to deal with information has not changed at all. We are still human beings, not information processing computers. The issue at the heart is one of attention. Key to understanding the experience of information overload, is to grasp that our attention is a finite resource.

We’ve all experienced this. Just think about what happens when you are driving on the motorway. You can listen to music, or have a conversation with someone without any problem at all. But when you come to look for the right turning to take, you stop talking and turn down the music.

Or when you come home, how many of us have put down our keys, manhandled a laptop bag, answered a ringing phone, tripped over the dog… only to realise you have no idea where your keys are. It’s not senility (probably), it’s that other things have grabbed your attention instead.

We only have a certain amount of attention to go around. Listen to this quote by Daniel Levitin from his book ‘The organized mind’:

“Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in, but at a cost: We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired. Neurons are living cells with a metabolism; they need oxygen and glucose to survive and when they’ve been working hand, we experience fatigue. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.”

We can experience ‘attention fatigue’. There are so many stimuli, so many things clamouring for our attention, that if we aren’t discerning we can become easily exhausted.

This issue of information overload, therefore, isn’t just a societal issue, it is a spiritual one too. Unless we direct our attention well, our attention will be drawn away from what’s important. That may be our savings account or our passport, but there are other more important things at stake. Without attention to our attention, we can easily be drawn away from Christ.

So, over the next few posts, we are going to take a look at a few strategies we can use to combat information overload, and to keep our attention on Jesus Christ.