When I was a child, a very high priority for my parents was that I ate all of the food that they put in front of me. I was told to finish all of my dinner, to clean my plate, and on many occasions I was instructed to stay at the dinner table until this task was complete. The rest of the family would be in the living room watching Happy Days, and I’d be sitting at the table with a full stomach watching my half eaten dinner go cold. While I’m sure my parents believed it was so I had enough nutrition, I actually don’t think that was their motivation. My parents where children of the depression & WW2 era. A lack of omnipresent food shaped their view on waste. To leave food was sin that was to be avoided maybe even risk hunger the next day. In all probability it was more about not appreciating the effort that went into providing for a family, it was being thankless.
In most western countries the cost of food has been dropping consistently since the 1950’s. Not only has the amount of food available increased, but the type and variety of food has too. The food chain has benefited dramatically from petrochemical enhanced agriculture, air travel and open trade. And so my (our?) parents desire to make us eat everything available seems like an outdated idea. An idea which is now culturally entrenched and just may be contributing our widening waistlines.
Information is the food of the mind. And just like our stomachs the type and amount we feed it has an impact on our mental faculties. For the first time in my life I now have all the information I could ever desire available on demand. Which is a major shift from what I grew up with. I often wonder if I would have been more scholarly if I had the access to the interesting things I do today. I grew up in an age with 3 TV channels, 2 local newspapers, a handful of radio stations and magazine rack at the local newsagent. Yes, there was a library, but hardly a book from the current decade resided in it. In fact, if I narrow that down to the stuff I was interested and assessed it against these mass forums I had access to the information available was very limited indeed. Fast forward 20 years since the launch of Mosaic, and there is a verifiable deluge of data on the nichest topics. In many ways, I feel the same way about information as my parents do about food – like it is a terrible waste not to consume it all.
It makes me wonder if there will be some ‘information’ equivalent to the obesity crisis we now face due to
poor rich eating habits. Will our addiction to information and digital entertainment result in some mass crisis of the collective mind? Or is it already happening? Maybe we’ll face some kind of ‘idiocracy‘? A collective information overload which injures our brains to the point of a mental illness epidemic….. One thing for sure is that while demand for information continues to climb, the supply of data points for profit will continuously be filled.
Just like food, it seems as though there is more demand for junk information. And while, we all enjoy the short term hit we get from ingesting it, we know it adds little to our cognitive ability in the long run. One problem is the ease with which we can justify paying attention to the junk web. For so many of us being informed and up to date with the latest meme is seen as some kind of personal requirement to generate commercial and social worth. This presents us with an obvious problem akin to the heady consumer days of the TV industrial complex. The idea that consumption was a beacon for success. However, in this instance, people believe that data consumption equals intelligence.
While none of us really know if this overload will have a long term impact socially or commercially, or if we’ll adapt in some way, I’m sure we all suffer from it daily.
What to do?
The same thing we do with food. A balance of nutritious intake, with the occasional treat. Maybe an 80/20 ratio. Decide what we really need to know about and find a good filter which provides it. Avoid the meme train and choose to know about something that matters, rather than know everything about nothing.
In short, the future is about enlightenment through exclusion and knowledge via focus. This is something excessive data consumption can never provide. One thing that tops knowing about the latest meme or some piece of web junk is creating something of long term value. And this is something we can never achieve while a disproportionate amount of time is invested in reviewing what others are doing.