Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Low Quality Infomania


I recently stumbled upon one of James Clear's old blog posts about information overload, and was particularly struck by his focus on low quality information. The idea of being a "digital junkie" or the problem of "infomania," defined by the Oxford dictionary as the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information, typically via mobile phone or computer, has been floating around the internet, and has been the fodder for -- somewhat ironically -- think pieces and opinion columns for a few years now.

The basic idea behind infomania is that people have become addicted to consuming vast amounts of information, of which there is a limitless supply available online. With a few clicks, anything from research papers on obscure historical societies to Buzzfeed quizzes about which internet famous cat is your spirit animal is instantly available.

The problem with this seemingly great technological advancement is that our brains simply can't handle the vast amount of information we put in front of our eyes. Not only can we not take it all in, leaving us to forget much of what we read/see, but infomania can also lead to greater anxiety and depression.

Infomania is a problem I've had my own struggles with. Before I deleted Facebook and Twitter I had an endless feed of links and videos bookmarked on each platform to look at later that only grew as time went on, yet I continued to add to it. Even though I already had so many links and videos already saved, I continued to waste time scrolling through my feeds looking for more.

Part of my need to constantly look at new information is, I think, based in my personal insecurities, which involve a lack of knowledge about something (if you're into enneagram types, I'm a 5; if you're not, the best way to explain is that I see acquiring more knowledge as the solution to most problems). Constantly looking at information is how I combat my self-perceived shortcomings, and if I'm particularly invested in a topic, I have an all-consuming desire to find every single piece of media that touches on the topic in the slightest way, pushing me toward more and more convoluted tangents. 

I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to know things or being curious about topics and researching them, and I'm not about to say that I've quit the internet. But there is a point at which this path becomes mentally unhealthy, which is where Clear's argument comes in.

How much time do you spend consuming information that you have no intention of taking action on or that you don’t care deeply about? 

He divides information into two areas: Circle of Concern and Circle of Control. The Circle of Concern contains things that you worry about but have no control over (other people's actions, the news, celebrity gossip, etc), and the Circle of Control includes things you can control in your daily life. He argues that you should spend less time worrying about the things in the Circle of Concern and put most of your time and energy into what's in your Circle of Control, where you can actually make a difference (he adds that those who pay so much attention to the Circle of Concern are less likely to take action in general because they think the world is so far gone that there's no point in making any effort at all).

News consumption is a big Circle of Concern problem for me. As an International Studies major in college, I was expected to always know what was happening everywhere in the world at any point in time, so much of my time was spent reading articles and think pieces from news sites from around the world to acquire a depth and diversity of perspectives. Two years past graduation I'm more relaxed on this, but I sometimes still spend far too much time clicking on every single article hyperlinked within a summary article in order to get the fullest picture imaginable. This leads not to being better informed, but rather not being able to remember much of anything I read, and having a difficult time making connections between isolated pieces of news because there is just so much to sort through.

Since realising this about myself, I've put stricter limits on how I consume media. Deleting Facebook and Twitter made it easy to not be bombarded by new information all day; now if I want to know something, I have to seek it out. I unsubscribed from all news newsletters so summaries of the events of the day aren't the first and last things I see anymore. I still read the news every day -- though I can't control any of it, I find it personally useful to have a sense of what's happening in the world -- but I've cut it down to just reading the daily briefing from the New York Times and only clicking on the extra links if it's a topic I've genuinely interested in or if it relates to my job.

And after putting all these limits on my consumption of media I don't feel any less informed. If anything I feel more so, because I can actually recount what I've read. And better, I can take what I've read and remembered and turn in into something else, no longer being a passive consumer (like turning Clear's article into my own thoughts on the subject, as a cheeky example). This is Clear's ultimate point: we should be cautious about how much and what quality of information we consume because most of it doesn't change anything about our lives and the choices we make. He concludes, "It’s great to be smart, but it’s better to be helpful."

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