500 years ago, you were fortunate to own something someone else wrote. 100 years ago, most people could hold about half a dozen of them in their pocket. This article today is easily reproducible and effortless to share, and there are billions of them.
Most trends have a historic precedent, where something gets done faster and better, but mostly the same way. History typically gives us principles if we’re willing to learn.
Multiple information technologies across history have gotten us here, but the Information Age has no precedent:
- Writing gave people to share and send information. Philosophers bemoaned what it did to everyone’s memory, but it allowed anyone to be educated by long-deceased people if they knew how to read and had access to a library.
- The printing press magnified writing, and money became the only constraint to permit many people to read.
- Photographs allowed us to send slices of time across the world, meaning we could see farther alongside understanding.
- The telegraph made the entire exchange instant with small bits of that information, allowing us to act faster.
- Radio let us deliver entire lectures to anyone in a region irrespective of price, and the telephone let us hold conversations irrespective of distance.
- Moving pictures let us capture and share human existence in its most raw form, and television made it commonplace and even more accessible.
- Electronic games and animation permit us to express fantasy to each other in a tangible medium.
- Virtual reality and augmented reality bring the entire experience together, limited only by imagination.
In the mid-1990’s, some geeks built a vast rat’s nest of networked computers called “the internet”. Once the trend caught on, every member of society irrespective of social standing could access everything as soon as they could get to a computer.
By the 2010’s, nearly anyone with a portable computer (e.g., a cell phone) and a reliable internet connection had instant access to far more information than kings had a century ago.
This trend has rendered certain established long-standing monoliths of information exchange largely obsolete:
- Why go to the library when the book is online or on your Kindle? As of now, a library is mostly a quiet place and its digital equivalent is a DRM enforcement vehicle for publishers.
- Why ask a friend about their hobby? You can find just as much information on literally thousands of hobbies on numerous message boards or online videos online.
- Why pay for college when the information is freely available online? For many industries, college only exists to communicate competence to specific social networks.
- Why consult scientific journals? The information is on SciHub or floating around online elsewhere.
- Why go shopping anywhere? You can just by things online and, once VR/AR is perfected, you can even test the product online for the most part.
- Since COVID-19, why go to church? You can practice your religious observance in the comfort of your own home.
Our present social trend is the Over-Information Age, which will only get worse as AI adds more semi-decent information on top of what we already have. It consists of lightweight connections with people across the world, irrespective of geography but dependent on technology, and comparatively few in-person interactions.
The Over-Information Age involves many organizations desperately competing for everyone’s scarce attention. It’s a better situation than the constraints of the past, but now creates a new problem of endless distraction. The Most cosmopolitan regions of the world are a perpetual, monotonous hum of inattentive focus that provoke us to being unhappy and unsuccessful, mindlessly pursuing tasks and substances that don’t fix our problems or give us meaning. It’s the human condition, but fast-foward.
This problem isn’t merely my opinion, either. Someone at Google in 2013 made a call to minimize distraction, and time is now officially our most limited resource.
Fixing It – Part 1: Slower Inputs
The first part of the problem is both a blessing and disguise.
If you examine the difference between the people of 50 years ago and now, the information from then traveled very slowly by comparison. Imagine the methods to get a recipe for soup:
- Read a recipe book if you had one, which meant a few minutes of leafing through it after consulting the table of contents. If you wanted a specific type of soup, no guarantees unless it was a soup-specific cookbook.
- Talk with someone who can cook well like a friend or a neighbor, via the phone or in-person. You probably had to make sure they were home unless you knew where they worked.
- Visit a library to find a cookbook, preferably soup-based. This required sifting through a paper index card database of all the books, or understanding the Dewey Decimal System, or asking a librarian for help.
- Visit a dining establishment and ask around, though that may frequently not work.
Now, it’s on allrecipes.com, or r/cooking, or Pinterest. No need to even leave your couch. Or you can text your friend if you wanted their specific recipe.
|Task||Time back in yore||Time it takes now|
|1. Think of the information you want|
|2. Get to the information repository||minutes to weeks (e.g., library, book)||<30 seconds|
|3. Sift through that information source||seconds to minutes (e.g., table of contents)||<5 seconds|
|4. Copy/learn the information you want||seconds to minutes (e.g., handwriting)||<10 seconds|
|5. Travel back and use the information||minutes to hours||<30 seconds|
|Total Time for information||minutes to weeks||<5 minutes|
There are tremendous advantages to slowly consuming information:
- You spend more time focusing and meditating on it, which builds a deeper attachment to other experiences.
- It took more time and effort to acquire that set of details, so discovering information is far more rewarding.
- The lead time waiting for the next stage of the information-gathering/using/communication process means less misstatement and misunderstanding.
- Other people likely helped give that information, which creates the primitives for building up a community.
If you observe recorded media of even 50 years ago, people had a certain type of civility and inherent critical thinking capacity missing from today’s culture. Most of it came from increased internalization of that information, which was first inspired by the comparatively longer time between information-gathering events.
The absolute worst thing to do with information is to half-mindlessly consume it on an endless algorithmic feed. It increases breadth, but at a tremendous cost of depth.
Anything works if it slows down inputs long enough to more accurately process it:
- Religious exercises
- Meditation, guided or otherwise
- More small talk in-person with others about the information
- My personal solution is to “churn” the information repeatedly until it becomes a corpus of commonplacing
Fixing It – Part 2: Slower Outputs
In the past, communicating information we had discovered took weeks or months to propagate:
- A casual life improvement like a soup recipe or cleaning tip would arise as tribal knowledge in small talk at the church service, town meeting, or Tupperware party.
- Since news about the world was typically at daily or weekly intervals, we’d take a comparative amount of days or weeks to deliberate on what we should do with that information.
- Slower input from the prior section meant learning new things and developing new skills required more free time practicing and meditating on it.
- The limitations on what we could do with technology created more meaning for every individual contribution we made compared to now.
Now, everything is almost reversed:
- Within 3 minutes, a casual life improvement can get 300 votes from others on social media, with a 10-15 minute video or blog post adding extra emphasis to the experience.
- The endless pipeline of news, updates, emails, notifications, and distractions can agitate us into taking action almost immediately if any of that information happens to be relevant.
- We can learn just about anything almost immediately, which can easily build a chain of endlessly developing amateur skills in something without polishing that understanding or task into mastery.
- Information technology allows 1 person to perform the work of 20 people from 100 years ago, which can add value, but also cheapens the entire experience.
There’s tremendous wisdom in slowness of speech. But, we now also risk contributing to the economic devaluation of what we say. That thing you wanted to say will become more semi-decent noise for others to sift through.
Instead, we must all be slower in our speech in small ways:
- Only hit “send” after you’ve taken a few minutes’ break.
- Only reply with information that adds value to the dialogue.
- Terminate conversations that don’t lead anywhere.
- Avoid pointless discussions.
- Keep things simple, then expand on them if anyone cares.
- Focus on meaning more than impact, and let the impact take care of itself.
If you’re recommending media to others, your journey will not be theirs:
- You’ll do a better service by distilling the best parts for them, since people often don’t have time/desire for reading/watching self-help, philosophy, and textbooks.
- Keep your list very, very short and hide away an extended list for the 2% who would care.
Fixing It – Part 3: Well-Managed Information
Now that we’re not drowning in over-information or continuing to socially poison our environment with regurgitated information, we must manage what we have.
Our technological tools are very effective at managing raw information:
- Starting with the idea of the memex in 1945, we can use a wide variety of productivity and tracking systems to directly collect and sort all our information.
- Wellness apps can fulfill every conceivable need, ranging from sleeping to eating to exercise to making friends.
- Even further, human nature is predictable enough that software algorithms can find intervals connected to our habits, then start preparing what we need or want just before we need it.
- Artificial intelligence, such as machine learning, heavily expands on any previous algorithms’ scope, and can learn behaviors simply by observing tens of thousands of iterations.
However, these tools have built-in limitations:
- Productivity systems help you accomplish what you want to do, but don’t tell you what to do.
- Wellness apps can fulfill our needs and help us survive, but thriving requires meaning, which ironically requires the responsibility we may have otherwise found by not having the wellness apps.
- An algorithm can be configured to predict what we want, but not whether it’s a good idea for the context.
- Machine learning algorithms are acting according to averaged-out behaviors, so exclusively trusting one will lead to a very average experience by an entity with zero understanding of how or why those things exist.
Online, you’ll find many people who accumulate piles of information. There are dozens of guides on the CSS spinner element, making your own carburetor cleaner, and how to make gluten-free strawberry rhubarb pie. We typically trust the social media algorithms will sift it, which has gotten us to where we are today.
However, we need more well-managed information, not just a better way to sift it.
Information is, by its very essence, linked to many other pieces of information. The only way we are even capable of understanding anything is by “tagging” all the information in our minds with other information.
To that end, all the decent organization systems have a few built-in features:
- Tagged groups, which are non-exclusive and user-made.
- The means to create more tags as-needed.
- Permutations, divergences, and convergences of groups, as-needed.
- A built-in “miscellaneous” section for any groups, as-needed.
However, this isn’t well-organized enough to combat the heavy piles of information presented to us, and we need a more direct assault. We are frequently unaware of our own philosophical precedents, so we incessantly presume meanings of words without clearly understanding them.
Clearly demarcating black-and-white distinctions forces us out of any cognitive dissonance we may have been maintaining, which is why we must always have permanent, completely exclusive categories:
- While multiple perspectives are acceptable to work with the information, only one perspective is “truth” for the purpose of organizing.
- Any “sporks” or “miscellaneous” elements are new categories or sub-categories, even if not explicitly stated.
- If the “truth” perspective starts becoming unreasonable, the entire system requires re-analysis, with the possibility of rebuilding all or part of the entire system.
Language codifies how we understand, and all the work is designed to build the information into as few words as possible. The ultimate goal is to associate the meaning we’ve built directly with our feelings.
Once something seeps into our subconscious, we start developing principles, which build pre-existing rules for how we should live. Over time, it frees us up to better work with information through a type of “mental automation“.
For myself, I have a few dogmatic rules to avoid unproductive information:
- There is always truth, even when it’s unknowable or without consensus, and the only meaningful dialogue comes through discussing whatever truth we have.
- Truth won’t contradict itself later, though it may be imprecise and need caveats at a later time. It’s reliable truth if its broad-sweeping practical implications don’t change.
- No matter the truth, someone in the room will disagree, and that conflict has 2 productive uses:
- The highest form of meaningful living requires love for others, which considers others’ interests equally with one’s own. Love focuses equally on truth and the individuals’ feelings about that truth.
- Agrippa’s Trilemma means the place for truth isn’t self-referenced, and is inherently a religious matter. We fight and kill over where that information resides, but the only solution (albeit not very reliably) is to incorporate love.
- We learn most things through trial-and-error before they’re “known good“, so there will be lots of screwups along the way. It does save tons of effort to know what is deductively true (Rule 1), but nobody will agree on it (Rule 3).
Your own dogmatic rules will vary, but should distill into equally potent axioms.
Someday, I expect this trend to normalize, and we may be moving there soon. However, this information blast will only slow down when two conditions happen at once:
- The culture shifts to hate “junk” information, which requires them at least somewhat agreeing on what’s important.
- The culture normalizes sifting out the bad information and tuning it out, which involves them all being tech-savvy or novelty-resistant enough to not over-consume.
The approach would start with a well-managed social media outlet, then work outward as the higher-quality content went viral.
This will likely not happen in my lifetime, so until then:
- Opt out.
- Avoid the endless wall of “feeds”.
- Limit RSS use.
- Limit podcasts.
- Make hard limits to your reading/watching lists, or work hard to shave them down.
- Find security in community.
- If you’re doing anything mindlessly involving consuming information, pay more attention to what you’re doing.
- Try to only do important things with your life.