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

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.


Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

Harvard scientists suggest 'Oumuamua is an alien device

It's an asteroid, it's a comet, it's actually a spacecraft?

(ESO/M. Kornmesser)
Surprising Science
  • 'Oumuamua is an oddly shaped, puzzling celestial object because it doesn't act like anything naturally occurring.
  • The issue? The unexpected way it accelerated near the Sun. Is this our first sign of extraterrestrials?
  • It's pronounced: oh MOO-uh MOO-uh.
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Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Maxpixel
Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
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