Why You Are Not Drowning In Data

[This essay appeared in issue #9 of Offscreen magazine]

We love to blame the world because the world can’t blame us back. I recently read Sarah Gooding’s article titled Drowning in Data: When News is Noise. She feels information overloaded makes it hard to cultivate creativity. It’s a sweet article and you should read it, even if I disagree. She writes:

It’s never been easier to be productive, but it’s also never been harder. With technology and a flood of information at my fingertips every time I turn on an Internet-connected device, my resolve crumbles.

There is a difference between how something feels and how something is. Of course life feels overwhelming at times. We all struggle to concentrate on what we want to now and then. But that doesn’t mean the world, or the technology in it, is accountable for our problems. Throughout history some people have struggled to be creative and to concentrate, while others haven’t found it to be much of a struggle at all. What explains the difference? I don’t think technology has much to do with it.

My theory is it’s best to think of information overload as a myth. As long as the things that distract you have an off switch, the problem isn’t the world, the problem is you. The world has always had far more information than we can consume, much less comprehend. The only thing that’s changed is our self-righteous stress in response to it.  Consider these situations:

  • When you go to a concert with friends are you distracted by the crowds around you?
  • When you go to a bookstore, are you overwhelmed by the books you see?
  • When you walk in nature, do the thousands of plants & insects stress you out?
  • When you breathe, does the abundance of air in the atmosphere around the planet worry you?

There are floods of information at our fingertips all the time, even when you go camping in the wilderness or when the power goes out in your apartment. The same arguments about how mobile devices or social networks are overwhelming could be made about anything on the list above. But we don’t make those arguments about anything other than technology and media. Why? Technology is an easy target. It’s easy to blame. It reflects our product centric culture that it is products, and not ourselves, that are the problem. We imbue technology with god-like powers which gives us the psychological crutch of blaming it first. But we forget only we turn the devices on and only we can turn them off. Gooding briefly mention The Slow Web, but even this puts technology in the center ring. Your mind should come first, always your mind. Our minds excel at tuning things out. We tune out an infinity of information all the time.

Much of our talk about information overload echoes the excuses of addiction. We complain that the web is trash, yet we complain about how hard it is to turn it off.  We crave, we habituate, we justify, and we get nervous and uncomfortable when we don’t get our fix. And when we fail and feel bad we blame the technologies, and the world, for our problems.   We wonder “why is there so much information? Who did this to us?” when the answer is always the person asking the question. We’ve been well trained to consume far more than we need. Our apartments and garages are filled with things we never use, yet we feel guilt in getting rid of them. Instead we want even more things. And we feel guilt there too, but not enough to change our behavior. It’s wise to ask who benefits from all this negative energy around consumption. It’s probably not you.

We consume information the same way: our inboxes and reading lists are several lifetimes long, yet every day we go out and chase more for no good reason at all. It’s a paradox: we fear missing out so much that we miss out. We are compelled to be information fiends, hoarding it, feeling shame over it, feeling dopamine rushes when we capture new batches, conquests that only repeat the same pattern. There’s really no reason to worry about reading all the books you own but haven’t read, yet we do. Speed reading is shallow reading, and we know, as Gooding points out, that we want depth over volume. The problem is very little of our behavior is in line with that goal. But if you can’t make your behavior align with your goals, whose problem is it? Nothing stops you from reading The Power of Habit, except, of course, your habits. Maybe useful books of self-awareness like it sit sadly in your queue, as you’ve forgotten it’s only reading books that helps your mind, not the buying.

Gooding writes:

The Internet is a black hole of information, sucking me in with its digital distractions.

Socrates never said “I’d do great work if I didn’t have philosophy overload from hanging out at the agora.” Emily Dickinson didn’t complain of vocabulary overload in the English language. Picasso, Da Vinci, Tesla and Marie Curie all possessed amazing curiosities and could have easily been distracted away from their work by the abundance of sex, food, conversation, money, news, books, and paintings in their lives. Yet they worked. They produced. Van Gogh was mad and starving and produced. Every generation has had its grand distractions. We forget ancestors painted on cave walls, as the struggle for survival didn’t stop their creativity. Bukowski was a drunk and a bum in nearly every sense of the word, yet wrote and wrote and wrote even more. With as little as he had, he sacrificed his time, and arguably his life, in the service of his ideas. What are you willing to sacrifice to create? If you don’t sacrifice something, it’s the creating that will be sacrificed for you. For our grandparents it was radio. For our parents it was TV. For us it’s the web. For our children it will be something else. There is always a justifiable distraction but history does not give you a pass for the ideas you let yourself get distracted away from.

As a writer I have days where no matter how much I want to work, I’m unproductive. I know it comes with the territory. I know my daily habits are a shield and my passion and love for ideas must fuel that shield and make it both stronger and more flexible. But I’m human and sometimes my habits fail me or I them. But I will never blame Netflix, or Twitter, or a phone, for the same reasons I would never blame the wind or the sky. It’s up to me to gain control over my mind. It’s my job as professional to take responsibility for both the inputs and outputs of my brain. It’s the willingness to work, over months and years, to make my mind an ally in my pursuits and not an adversary. But the first step is to stop blaming the information or the world. The world and the technology in it has never been the problem and as long as every device we use has an off switch, it never will be.

If you feel like you are drowning in data, stand up. Stand up for yourself and own your consumption. You’ll discover when you stand that you’ve been “drowning” in a kiddie pool all along.

Related:

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14 Responses to “Why You Are Not Drowning In Data”

  1. Todd

    Scott:

    This is a great post. It is easy for us to point toward the influence outside of us without recognizing that often the locus of control is within us, particularly in the events and settings that you describe.

    Thanks for challenging the easy answer!

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Thanks for reading Todd – I know there are plenty of other things to consume, including plenty of articles about drowning in data :)

      Reply
  2. Lois Patterson

    Being a mindful data consumer is something I am working on. There are zillions of mildly interesting, even slightly informative articles out there, but if you don’t make mindful, specific choices, you will be drowned in mediocre content, rather than focusing and absorbing thoughtful content. I don’t need to read the 1001th article about some relatively trivial startup or click through a Gawker list; I need to read and practice something that will add to my capabilities.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      I agree it’s tempting out there online, but it’s tempting out there in the world. I get hung up now and again thinking I don’t read enough of this, or feeling compelled to read the latest thing people on twitter or Facebook or somewhere are talking about. But then I remind myself the last time I resisted that urge, and how it had no effect on my life. That compulsion is mostly an illusion of information insecurity.

      Reply
  3. Barney Lerten

    Reminds me of my book in progress, ‘Rejecting the Blame Society.’ Good stuff as always Scott! (As I always say on this and related subjects of cognitive dissonance: We want to have our cake, eat it too, not get fat, have someone else pay the bill – and if we can’t, it’s _______ fault! (Usually the govt., the media – anyone but that sourpuss victim in the mirror;-)

    Reply
  4. Balaji Iyer

    Great article -resonates well with me !

    What do you think about how our brains ( neuro plasticity/ rewiring ) are adapting to this availability of data if at all ?

    http://www.ohba.ox.ac.uk/team/core-staff/kia-nobre

    I know we can’t prove that the changes we are going through are more or less acute than the predecessors you refer to but are there more – creative people in present day or past ? ( as a percentage of a populace that can rise beyond basic needs. )

    Side note :
    Dr. Nobre uses the word illusion to describe what we think we take in – very close to the hindu concept that the world is mostly maya ( illusory ) .

    Reply
  5. Phil Simon

    To quote Steve Hogarth, “Technology is wonderful when it isn’t in the way.”

    You’re right; it’s incumbent upon us to occasionally hit the off switch. Embrace better tools.

    Feel overwhelmed by e-mail? Try an RSS reader like Feedly. Unsubscribe to e-mails that you never read. Use tools like RightInbox or Boomerang to manage your e-mail. Create filters. Refuse to respond to e-mail chains. Insist upon actual, you know, conversations.

    Reply
  6. eddy

    Wonderful article. I’m a minimalist, or trying to be one, but I never thought of data overload as a choice. I have been consciously limiting the amount of data I take a dip in everyday and I’ve kept my email and feed nice and clean but I still used to blame the culture at least to some degree for overloading me with so much information.

    It’s always been a point of confusion for me because I believe the internet to be a great tool in human evolution as we learn to connect minds over great distances but on the other hand it’s very easy to get addicted and lost in the world of likes and tweets and blogs and memes. I kind of knew that in the end the internet is just a tool and it’s neither positive or negative in itself but I still blamed the internet culture of over-sharing.

    This post has really helped me put this in perspective. The analogy with a forest is the best. When you go hiking on a forest you don’t feel the need to go and view every tree in its entirety. Or find every cool animal living in the forest so you can take a pic of it. (most probably to share on instagram).

    The web is also like a forest. There are plenty of cool stuff we’ll never know about but that’s okay. We should relax and enjoy the patch of the forest we are in. We should pitch our tent and spend a few days here instead of running around trying to capture everything.

    Great post. One that’s made me weed out my feed even more!

    Reply
    1. Scott

      I’m glad you found the article at all given how many other trees are out there :)

      I admit I get lost sometimes too – I just try to see myself as the cause and solution rather than something beyond me.

      Reply
      1. eddy

        That’s always a good way to look at things. Then you have full control.

        Reply
  7. Jim Sabogal

    Ok I agree with the premise of your article. Even if you do stand up and look to take ownership of your data. Then what? I’m in the business of helping others deal with this to achieve a goal in an organization. I like your words because what you’ve written is overlooked as a problem with no solution. Why bother…. Ok then del with it – ask for help and there are solutions out there. Thanks, Jim

    Reply
  8. Wendy Bradley

    Thanks! Terrific writing about what seems to be a ‘wilfully blind’ excuse for lack of discipline, focus, and self-awareness. The repercussions of attention deficit are maddening to us as individuals, and are taking a huge toll on the effectiveness of our organizations and institutions. FYI: I found Sakyong Mipham’s “Turning the Mind into an Ally” to be a super read for anyone who frets about such matters. It is an interesting and compelling piece to help us understand and regain control of our perceptions and crazy mental habits (including 21C attention deficit and misuse of technology.) Amazon offers a “look inside” option for the book – worth taking a peek.

    Reply

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