Information Overload? There Has Always Been Too Much to Know

Is the Slow Internet movement based around an ultimately flawed idea – that it’s actually possible to shut off the massive meme-spraying firehose of the Interwebs?

The backlash against the information overload of the modern Internet era is getting stronger than ever. After years of sharing everything with everyone and breathlessly embracing the latest site du jour on the social Web, people are realizing that they can no longer keep up. Signs of this are all around us – people promising to “go off the grid” for days at a time, people removing their profiles from social networks and complaining of social media fatigue, and people scrambling to find new ways to rein in their social media promiscuity. But is this Slow Internet movement based around an ultimately flawed idea – that it’s actually possible to shut off the massive meme-spraying firehose of the Interwebs?


People who are in the Slow Internet movement, of course, don’t actually refer to this as the Slow Internet movement, much as the pioneers of the Slow Food movement never actually referred to it as the Slow Food movement until a bunch of foodies in Italy took it into their own hands when they saw a McDonald's opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The manifesto of the Slow Internet movement is similar to the manifesto of the Slow Food movement, but adapted for the realities of our digital age: making an effort to spend more quality time offline, re-thinking relationships on social networks, and finding ways to reduce the feeling of guilt about not checking one's streams constantly.

It’s easy to see why the Slow Internet movement has struck a chord with so many people – this Internet thing seems to be getting away from us these days. According to Mark Zuckerberg’s Law of Online Sharing, we’re on pace to share billions of pieces of content in 2012. People who have already hooked up their Spotify music accounts to Facebook have shared more than 1.5 billion pieces of information in just the last two months. Not only that, the amount of information that we share online will double every year, ad infinitum, thanks to the whole concept of "frictionless sharing." (Sound familiar? It’s Moore’s Law updated for the social networking era.)

Alexander_PopeBut let’s step back for a second. How extraordinary is this massive amount of information flooding into our lives?

One of last year’s most popular books – The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood from James Gleick (yes, that James Gleick) – documented numerous occasions in history when even the leading intellectuals of the day admitted to being overloaded by the amount of information out there. Leibniz feared a return to barbarism "to which result that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing might contribute very much." The words of Alexander Pope, responding to the veritable flood of books brought on by the printing press, are priceless: “Paper became so cheap, and printers so numerous, that a deluge of Authors covered the land.” Contemporaries wrote of drowning in a "churning flood" of information. T.S. Eliot feared that all this new information was bringing us no closer to enlightenment: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

And that’s the same story teased out by another book on information overload through the ages, Too Much to Know. As Harvard historian Ann Blair makes clear, the same issues that we’re facing today brought on by the flood of information in our lives are the same ones contemplated hundreds of years ago during the European Renaissance, long before the information era and the rapid proliferation of modern communications. Yet, as Blair points out, Renaissance scholars eventually found a way to “surf” the massive tidal wave of information that was being unlocked each day using new indexing techniques and inventing literary genres like the florilegium.

If information, indeed, wants to be free, it means that it’s destined to propagate endlessly, without limit. Think of Borges's infinite Library of Babel, where everything can be found, but nothing can be located. The world is headed toward maximum entropy, a fact that members of the Slow Internet movement seem to forget. The Joy of Quiet is not actually a joy, and it’s never actually getting any quieter. The only thing capable of taming the exponential growth of information is something else that can also grow at an exponential pace: silicon. But that opens up a whole other can of worms – at what point will man and machine become one, in our mad scramble to make sense of the sheer amount of information in our lives?

image: Stressed Young Businesswoman With Three Laptops / Shutterstock

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

For most of history, humans got smarter. That's now reversing.

We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?

The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
popular

There's a new study out of Norway that indicates our—well, technically, their—IQs are shrinking, to the tune of about seven IQ points per generation.

Keep reading Show less

Lama Rod Owens – the price of the ticket to freedom

An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.

Think Again Podcasts
  • "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
  • "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."
Keep reading Show less