Why more information is not always better


Managing information used to be a problem reserved for newspapers and librarians. But with the dawn of the information age, and things like automated data collection and low-cost mobile technology, it’s now a problem everyone has to deal with.

What makes it worse is that by information, we’re not just talking about the never-ending stream of Facebook posts, video ads, and memes. Information is any type of data that comes into your awareness through your sensory organs, and today, it’s absolutely everywhere.

Car horns, branding, coffee, Kindles, websites, apps, pollution, Justin Beiber — especially if you live in a city, you’re bombarded with information at almost every moment of the day. Aside from using any device, a great example of this is taking a trip to the supermarket.

You just want a sandwich or some milk, but to get to them, you purposely have to negotiate your way around an average of 40,000 other products. Essentially, what that means is unless you’re bold enough to wear horse blinders, all that superfluous sensory data is going to cripple your brain and you’re almost guaranteed to come out with a trolley load of stuff you didn’t know you wanted.

Luckily, to deal with all this extra data in the modern world you don’t need to wear blinders or even become a master of controlling your instincts. Rather, it’s about recognising that the mind has a limited processing capacity, and that when that limited capacity is exceeded, like your phone or laptop, it will naturally start to lag and may even crash.

The effects of this overload of information and the almost daily lagging and crashing have been well documented. Some social psychologists even propose that it’s the principal driver behind what causes city dwellers to become jaded and indifferent, even contributing to the bystander effect — i.e. that moment in which you think you’d help the person in need but, when in a city or group environment, do diddly squat.

It is possible to live in a world that has too much information to know what to do with. But as with many things, you can’t get there without understanding a bit more about what the problem is and why you should really care in the first place.

After all, there’s a billion other bits of information you could be paying attention to.

So before I lose you to one of them, let’s dive into a few of the ways more information makes our lives worse. And in particular, how the information boom — largely thanks to the internet — is changing how we think and interact with the world around us.

Too much information, too little time

As mentioned, anyone who’s been to any shop today or used a computer likely knows what it’s like to get overwhelmed with information.

Psychologist George Armitage Miller, one of the founders of cognitive psychology, was one of the first to really explain not just why this happens, but how it leads to an outcome that is directly opposed to the desired one.

Miller proposed that people can only consciously process about five to nine ‘chunks’ of information at any given time. Any more than this, and it is likely to lead to confusion, overwhelm, and therefore paradoxically even poorer decisions than if you didn’t have the information in the first place.

What Miller was alluding to is known as “information anxiety”. Information anxiety, in the words of Richard Saul Wurman who wrote a book of the same name, is:

“…produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. It is the black hole between data and knowledge, and what happens when information doesn’t tell us what we want or need to know.”

With a wealth of information on any given topic at our fingertips and more being pumped out every second, today this gap is more like an endless abyss. You know when you’re in this abyss as there’s an insatiable desire for more and more information, which may manage to improve the situation slightly, but overall widens the discrepancy further and acts as the source of much lost time and energy.

This information abyss is particularly pronounced and exacerbated online. The web is a place you go to to find information to support the decision-making process and help complete certain tasks. But as the places from which we retrieve this information are designed not to inform us as quickly and effectively as possible, but to capitalise on our tendency to procrastinate, get distracted, and be lead down intriguing rabbit holes, they can cause us to become drowned in information and to wake up five hours later exhausted and having forgotten what we’d set out to find in the first place.

It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure

In itself, having access to too much information in not a bad thing. According to NYU new-media professor Clay Shirky, where it becomes problematic is when we have a lack of adequate filters to deal with such information.

Shirky describes ‘filter failure’ as a phenomena of post-Gutenberg economics. For the first time ever, the Gutenberg printing press allowed for the widespread distribution of information. However, due to the economics which came along with buying and running a printing press, this meant that people who were running the presses were also in charge of which information got published and sent out into the world.

Today, this monetary barrier to entry has all but vanished: i.e. post-Gutenberg economics. Today, anyone with a phone can publish information and burp out whatever aimless thought happens to be on their minds to millions — no need to mention any names here.

This democratisation of publishing is a huge step forward for humanity, but it comes at a cost. With the disappearance of the middle-man to temper and narrow down the information stream, as well as filter for things like quality, relevance, and downright stupidity, the onus of filtering is borne upon the individual.

As per Miller’s theory of only being able to process five to nine chunks of information at a time, this filter failure is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. The mind simply can’t filter so much information, and yet we have to unless our heads will explode. One example of an ad hoc filtering mechanism that many people have adopted for the job is the social media filter bubble.

When faced with the task of dealing with increasing amounts of opinions, information, and the accompanying uncertainty, stability and respite can be found in closed off newsfeeds that only show information that supports our own views, ideas, and behaviours. With the support of algorithms, we can now shape echo chambers that enable us to avoid information that could disrupt or oppose what we already know, adopting the roles of being our own gatekeepers, aggregators, and editors of the information that shapes our world, without even knowing it.

A subtle but insidious type of pollution

As a consequence of filter failure, naturally we get a “contamination” of useful information we want with pretty pointless and even harmful information we don’t want. This is known as ‘information pollution.’

A cause and contributor of information anxiety, information pollution, like real pollution, has many effects on our ability to process information. One of the biggest effects comes down to having to bear the mental costs of chronic multitasking.

By multitasking, I’m not talking about trying to juggle whilst feeding the cat. You can be doing nothing but sitting staring at clouds and still be multitasking. As Daniel Levitin, author of The Organised Mind supports by suggesting “just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance.” In other words, even just having the possibility to multitask is multitasking.

When we have an abundance of information in our environment, we have to be constantly deciding what’s most important and what needs our attention. With every bit of information we encounter, we’re forced to think if it concerns or doesn’t concern us, whether we should answer or ignore it, whether we should agree or disagree with it, and whether we should stick with what we’re doing or attend to it — oh, too late.

According to Levitin, all these little mental tasks ‘spend’ oxygenated glucose, the very fuel you needed to focus on what you were originally doing. This can leave us suspended in decision-making mode and unable to process and remember the information at hand. In contrast, though, when we are aware of distractions and can direct our focus to the current task, we stay in central executive mode, which uses less energy and reduces the brain’s need for glucose.

A good analogy for the state of information pollution, particularly online, is the modern diet. Without any structure or organisation to the delivery of information, using the internet can be much like going to a restaurant that only serves dessert. And eating there all day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if you get your information from the tabloids or Facebook.

The bad thing about this is that dessert is cheap and tasty — a bit like sweet treats that provide momentary pleasures but never leave you feeling like you’ve had enough. The good thing is that when you restrict your intake and avoid such sources of empty calories, your palate quickly begins to change.

Noticing some of these effects in your life is the first step to managing the information abundant world. Following on from the last analogy, the way many of us consume information today is akin to someone who exists solely off ice-cream pizzas and soda. With a few simple changes, though, you can begin to change your relationship with information to be like that of an Olympic athlete: knowing exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed, and how to manage and put it to good use, especially when it matters most.