We’re in a golden age of access to information. Evidently, it’s a nightmare.
I was reminded anew of the horrors of information overload recently, in terrors brought on by New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd’s account of getting high on a pot brownie, or something, in Colorado.
I’m being vague (and not linking) because I’ve done everything I can to avoid this nonstory — and you should too.
It’s an example of “information” that becomes not merely contagious but also a miniature plague — commented upon, complained about, analyzed, and denounced by countless online opinionizers, media pundits, and talking heads — every word multiplying the original nothingness.
So that’s the problem. How do we solve it?
INFO VS. INFO
A few potential solutions to information overload have emerged in recent months. A popular form is the blunt riposte to the culture of “clickbait” (That is, tempting headlines, often posed as questions and frequently misleading, that lure your attention, only to squander it with a disappointingly vacant “article.”)
The Twitter account Saved You A Click has been getting attention lately for deflating these frequently misleading headlines. Our own David Pogue has similarly written a couple of funny clickbait spoiler roundups. Most recently, The Onion has announced a parody site called ClickHole, evidently designed to shame the clickbaiters.
Meanwhile, new approaches to packaging news into fresh cut-through-the-clutter formats are in vogue: The recently launched FiveThirtyEight touts a data-driven strategy, and the also new Vox emphasizes an explainer-y, “here’s the gist” format. The New York Times has gotten in on the act with its blog, The Upshot, which basically combines those approaches.
Unfortunately for those seeking to reduce information overload, these sites often pile on more info, not less. Do you have time to read FiveThirtyEight’s data-driven 4,000-worder on America’s best burrito? How about wading through Vox’s “40 Maps that Explain Food In America”? Or the Upshot’s look at the Great Recession — in 255 charts?
Maybe fighting information overload with more information is not always helpful.
HOW TO MISS OUT
In fact, I’d suggest the exact opposite of attempting to cope with information overload by adding to your Twitter feed or lingering over data visualization homework.
The real key to fighting information overload is getting better at recognizing, and ignoring, what doesn’t matter.
In that spirit, some suggestions.
1. Fake It.
If somebody says “Wow, the Denver office is like Game of Thrones,” I conclude the Denver office is a cutthroat tangle of byzantine and nasty office politics. I haven’t seen the show and don’t need to waste hours in front of HBO to get this reference.
Karl Taro Greenfeld recently wrote about this phenomenon as “faking cultural literacy” — an ersatz fluency in pop culture gleaned from scanning Facebook and skimming headlines: “It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything,” as he put it.
And is that so bad? Well, if you’re pretending to have read Anna Karenina based on a glance at Amazon reviews, yeah, that’s bad. But Anna Karenina is important; a loony NYT op-ed is not. Going back to the Dowd incident: Despite my efforts to avoid it, I’m sure I would get a jokey reference on The Daily Show. No need to waste time inhaling the primary-source details. You’re better off using that time reading Tolstoy.
2. Resist the Urge to ‘Know First’
On April 20, a story broke that photographer Terry Richardson had offered a model a Vogue photo shoot if she’d have sex with him.
On April 24, it was revealed that this story was a hoax.
Suppose you had slept through this entire incident. By not knowing the original claim, you would be just as informed about this nonevent as anyone who followed the original nonstory and its debunking. And you would be better rested.
3. Don’t Worry about Being ‘Late’
Often the justification for keeping up with stuff you don’t care about is that other people care about it, and you don’t want to be late.
It’s true that if you show up at work tomorrow and announce that you’ve discovered an awesome viral video called “Gangnam Style,” you’ll raise some eyebrows. But that’s an extreme case.
Much of the time there’s really no cred penalty for being “late” these days. Recently The Atlantic devoted thousands of words to discussing a song flowchart that’s been kicking around the Internet for four years. Eyebrows raised: None. For that matter, consider “Gangnam Style”: It got a billion views within six months of its 2012 release — but it’s gotten another billion-plus views since then. In other words, at least half of all “Gangnam Style” views are “late”!
4. Reject Social Capital
The two prior points converge here: There’s a theory that being first to know and share some data point comes with some sort of prestige unique to the social-media era.
False. Nobody is impressed by your speedy “R.I.P. Maya Angelou” tweet, and nobody is depending on you for such facts, which we are all going to hear, more than once, as it is. Don’t contribute to the problem.
5. Have a ‘Don’t Care’ Blacklist
Some cultural nuggets gain momentum solely because we’re all supposed to have an opinion about them. Dowd’s dope adventure is a recent example.
But the benefits of a “no-opinion blacklist,” increase over time. For instance, I have un-trended James Franco: I don’t read anything about him, period. Thus I’ve freed myself from having to have any reaction to, say, his recent photography exhibition — or the fact that the New York Times slammed his recent photography exhibition, let alone Franco and/or Franco-watchers responding.
6. Never Read about Celebrity Opinions on Current Events
Speaking of famous people who get too much attention, it simply doesn’t matter where Courtney Love thinks that airplane went down. It’s just not important whether Louis C.K.’s tweets about Common Core are right or wrong. In fact, nobody needs to care whether Marc Andreessen thinks Edward Snowden is a traitor.
Famous people opining about the news get attention because they are famous, not because their thinking is enlightening or relevant. Ignore.
The recurring theme here, you’ve likely noticed, is that the true antidote to information overload has very little to do with the way information is presented to us — and everything to do with how we choose to take it in.
Or rather: What we choose not to take in. I’m tempted to conclude with the catchy phrase, “ignorance is bliss,” but that’s a bit much.
So I’ll settle for this: Ignoring is bliss.