Tales of Technology: Consider a cure for pernicious infobesity
James H. Morris
When people ask me what to do about all the information bombarding us, I point out that information is not like bombs; it’s like food. When man developed agriculture, nobody complained about being bombarded by food, at least until the age of vaudeville. Unless you were a confirmed hunter-gatherer, you should have welcomed the plenty that agriculture brought.
However, agriculture had its costs. Marxists claim it induced a reorganization of labor and created slavery. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond says agriculture created cities and nations that fight wars of conquest, and that the domestication of animals brought smallpox.
Reliable food production also brought a smaller, but real problem: obesity. Evolution has not yet told our hunter-gatherer bodies that the food supply is dependable. We carry months’ worth of food in the form of fat. More people in our modern societies die from obesity than from starvation.
Similarly, the plenitude of information has brought about a new disease: infobesity. Newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet are producing far more information than we can absorb. Now, no one is being bombarded, i.e. forced to absorb information they don’t want, but information seduces us into ingesting too much, just like food. The internet, by getting all this information in the same place and accessible to computers, offers some the hope that we’ll be able to get control of the information glut. But that’s an illusion.
Fundamentally, a person can absorb only so much information. For many centuries, we have assumed there was a shortage of information, and, like our hunter-gatherer bodies, we have always been anxious to absorb more. But maybe we have reached the point where we should begin restricting our information intake to avoid infobesity.
What does infobesity look like?
Being a know-it-all or a smarty-pants. Remember Al Gore?
Winning at Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy!
Hearing the same story repeatedly. For example, you see it on AOL at the office, then you hear it on the radio driving home, then it’s on the six o’clock news, then the eleven o’clock news, then in the paper.
What is the cure? Infodieting!
The Crash Infodiet. Breakfast: Five minutes of CNN Headline News. Lunch: Two columns from the front page of the Post-Gazette. Dinner: World News column of the Wall Street Journal. Bedtime Snack: Five email messages from the “Interesting People” mailing list which you can find at http://www.interesting-people.org.
The Atkins Infodiet. The only permitted sources are the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Week in Review, and the New York Times Sunday Review section. No magazines.
The Starvation Infodiet. Herbert Simon, Carnegie Mellon’s famous professor, claimed to watch no television, read no papers, and to depend upon friends to tell him anything he needed to know quickly. Each year, he would browse the Encyclopedia Britannica yearbook to find out if anything important had happened.
The Junk Food Infodiet. The National Enquirer, People magazine, Entertainment Tonight. Avoid the Globe and the Star.
The Weight Watcher Infodiet. Each information item has a point total calculated by multiplying the probability that it is true by the probability that it will affect your life, and then subtracting from 100.
For example, reading that there’'s an 80 percent chance of rain in Pittsburgh costs you 20 points, while a 10 percent chance of rain in the Gobi Desert will cost you 100.
If you’re still reading this, you’ve just wasted 1,000 points!