One of my favorite things about the Internet is that you sometimes find two seemingly unrelated pieces of writing, and it ends up sparking thoughts that keep you busy for days on end. That happened this weekend when I came across two articles that deal with information consumption in completely different but complementary ways.
The first, an article called Soma, discusses the downside of human intellect, and how the ability to think about the past and the future is the source of all our anxiety. It then draws the parallel between this anxiety and our reliance on media as a sort of pseudo-drug to drown out contemplation and deep thought:
A busy mind cannot contemplate, and a mind that cannot contemplate cannot sink into perturbation. In this way, all this consumption of media online and offline is a way to kill off deep thinking—a cause of our anxieties.
Dmitry goes on to explain the negative consequences of this:
Of course the problem with this is that the mind not only bears negative thoughts, it also produces the very ideas that create and shape civilization. But the mind is like a muscle, if you don’t make use of it, it will begin to atrophy. Incapacitating the mind helps relieve anxiety, but it also weakens it so that nothing is produced when it’s finally left alone to think. This can be observed in those restless people who cannot spend a moment alone by themselves, isolated from any sensory input. The people who would pull out the mobile phone in every place, at any time, just to continue feeding their brain with soma. A moment alone, in silence, is unbearable to them because their minds are empty, and so they crave any form of external distraction to relieve them of their boredom.
Harsh words, but it makes a lot of sense. Next I came across Mark Hurst’s post To solve info overload, make friends with The Nothing (via @iamFinch's Twitter feed). He immediately deserves points for referencing The Nothing from Neverending Story, but beyond that it’s also a nearly perfect follow-on to Dmitry’s post. He says the following:
The only way to really make information disappear, these days, is to surround it by a sufficient amount of competing information.
The example he shares about drug side effects is fascinating in itself, but his larger point is this:
Put another way, too many competing inputs are the same as not using the inputs at all. Trying to consume too many sources in our media diet is equivalent to not consuming anything at all. In the digital world, information will find us. It’s inescapable, and if we’re not careful, The Everything will arrive and paralyze us. So the challenge is to find The Nothing, and make friends with it, to solve overload permanently. Let the bits go.
The conclusion I’m drawing from these two articles is nothing new, but I do like how they work together to basically tell this story:
One of the reasons we are so addicted to information is that the constant input dulls our minds to anxiety and fear. However, an unintended side-effect of this is that it can also suppress creativity because we don’t really use our minds in the right way any more.
One solution to this problem (and this is where I’m admittedly going into ‘stating the obvious’ territory) is to actively reduce the number of information inputs we receive every day. Follow fewer people on Twitter. Shut down your FriendFeed account. Subscribe to fewer RSS feeds. Better yet, unsubscribe from TechCrunch, Mashable, Fast Company, and every other blog that posts 20 times a day or more. If it’s that important, someone you follow on Twitter will let you know about it.
Information is great, and sometimes I wish I didn’t need to sleep so I could just read constantly. As Frank Chimero recently tweeted, “There’s so much good stuff out there, isn’t there? I can only hope the people I like get to the parts I don’t and tell me about it.” That said, I buy the argument that constant input can hurt our creativity, and that we should maybe find a few trusted sources for our information and let go of the rest, just to give our minds a break.