“Real art is not knowing where you are going, but are listening intently to something you don’t understand. And if your ego doesn’t interfere, this something you don’t understand may guide you to much more than you ever expected.”
Robert Pirsig

October 2009

Changing Our Information Diet


This morning I  read a well written article by Tim Young titled “Our Changing Information Diet”. As I read it, I felt Tim was on to something, but also that something was missing. So I am going to play it back … backwards…and see what happens.

Activity streams are quickly becoming a dominant form of information delivery on the web. These real-time, ever-flowing rivers of information epitomize the reasoning for being conscious of our information diet. Activity streams provide bite-sized information that is easy to snack on at any time, but it can be potent in calories due to the frequency of updates. In order to maintain a nutritious information diet, we will need tools and features that provide feedback on our consumption habits, as well as smart agents that help us optimize the amount of valuable information consumed per time expended.

Personally, I am eagerly awaiting the day when I discover an activity stream of information that comes complete with “Nutrition Facts” to assist me in making good choices. Not too far down the road, our information consumption will be guided by metrics that help each one of us determine the most valuable people and information sources, creating order in the chaos that has become modern information delivery.

I recall a Yoga lesson in which my teacher offered a fellow student a suggestion for a personal practice. The student replied with an answer containing “If I can find time”, to which my teacher replied “you will never find the time” = you need to make time. For most of the people I’ve taught one-on-one Yoga the greatest challenge was actually practicing (and making the time for it). What if you will never discover “activity stream of information” – because you have to create it (instead of waiting for some startup to make it for you)? I already have mine – a core principle in shaping it is “less” – less information, less real-time, less flow, less disturbance.

Every day, our environment is becoming increasingly complex. As we continue to increase the number of people we follow and the number of feeds we consume, we are all increasing the complexity of our information diet. Some have even begun to label this as “infobesity.” Increasing the complexity and volume of information we ingest can have a similar effect to increasing your daily intake of calories.

Expressions like “every day” & “we are all”, place these claims in error. My environment is getting simpler, I follow less people and consume less feeds (every time these numbers go up I usually make it a point to bring them back down, even lower then they were to start with). Amongst my “onland” social circles I am considered a very technically savvy and “online” person). But, even if it was just my life as an example (and it’s not) – these assumptions are false. They represent a way of life for some people, which despite all the chatter they produce are a small minority. For some reason (maybe many reasons) they assume that their problem is everyone’s problem – they operate in an imagined “global internet”. So they set out to solve the problem on a “global” scale…. and I have a feeling that this causes the problem to spread.

We have been incredibly successful at increasing the number and variety of places where we can forage for information. The convergence of social networks, mobile devices, and real-time activity streams have led to an explosion in the amount of information we can suck in and spit back out. It’s like an ever-growing information buffet – and we’re there for the ‘all you can eat’ meal. At the same time, with an overload of information available to us, our tools for finding, consuming and filtering this information have remained constant in their ability to assist us in making sense of the data. The result is an increasingly complex information environment – one in which we must constantly work to filter the myriad points of data presented to us.

This reminds me of when I learned how Ethernet works. In an Ethernet network (like the one you are most probably connected to now) all the computers are connected and have permission to talk (send packets of information). There are two “rules” a computer is expected to abide by when communicating on an Ethernet network (this is something that network interfaces do for you all the time, without you even knowing about it, kind of like breathing):

  1. Be Polite. If you want to communicate through the network you need to first listen that no one else is talking (the ether is clear). If no-one else is that you are free to send your stuff, otherwise  you wait until the network is silent. But this doesn’t always work, because, for examples, two computers may be waiting to talk, and when the network is silent they both send out information simultaneously. If the computers are far apart on the network this may not be a problem – but many times it is – and a collission occurs – which destroys both packets… for which there is a second rule.
  2. Be Helpful. Always listen to the network so that when a collision happens you can let the others know. When a collision occurs, the computer closest to it on the network (which is now silent – since both packets of information have annihilated each other) is expected to send a packet notifying everyone that a collision occurred (which is especially useful to the computers who’s information packets got lost in the collision) . A funny thing is that there may be two or more computers in the network vicinity of the collision – in which case there may be a collision of collision notifications.

It sounded to me ridiculously simple and wonderous that a system built around “collisions” actually works (and today drives most of the networks in the world). Yet I believe that Ethernet works because of another subtle element, it’s so obvious that it goes without saying – purpose! Ethernet was designed to enable communication. At the time, that was such a revolutionary concept that it was anything but obvious – and every decision in the creation of the Ethernet protocol (a rule which guides how an activity should be performed) was made to support this purpose.

‘We have been incredibly successful at increasing the number and variety of places where we can forage for information”

To what end? Is there purpose? I don’t have numbers to validate this – but I would guess that a tiny fraction of “information technologies” invented or in existence (many have passed out of existence) are quality means for either creating quality information or getting to it. The majority are disturbing technologies invented by disturbed people looking for irrelevant solutions in the wrong places for problems that don’t exist. They lack purpose.

Recently, I have been thinking about how our food consumption and information consumption habits actually closely resemble each other. Just as food is the energy source for our bodies, information is the energy source for our minds. Our body’s health is heavily influenced by the quality of our nutritional habits. Consuming foods high in fat, sugar, and other unhealthy elements can lead to a variety of health problems, causing a deterioration of one’s quality of life. Similarly, if we have a poor information diet (i.e. consistently watching reality TV and internet meme videos), our mind’s performance, clarity, and ability to achieve goals can be severely negatively impacted. Although network TV and comedic YouTube videos are fun, they can also be addicting like a sweet sugary snack. Consume too many of these snacks and you will soon find yourself gasping at the scale in disbelief. However, the rate and ease of access to these sugary information snacks has only increased in recent years.

There is a well known saying “We are what we eat”. Krishnamacharya is quoted as saying that “We eat what we are”. Think about it… if you want to… if you do you may want to check out the title of this post compared to Tim’s original article.

Finally, I wonder what would happen if, for a person who does suffer from “infobesity”, a dream would come true and

“…information consumption will be guided by metrics that help each one of us determine the most valuable people and information sources, creating order in the chaos that has become modern information delivery.”

…I believe the question was better phrased by Sting:

“You may win the war that’s coming, but would you tolerate the peace?”

This entry was posted in AltEco, Expanding, inside, outside. You are welcome to add your comment

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