People are drowning in data and it keeps getting worse.
More than two decades ago, in his book “DATA SMOG: Surviving the Information Glut” author David Shenk describes the problem of information overload or having too much information.
According to Shenk, it was around the 1950s or '60s when this problem first came about. Up until then, practically everyone agreed that more information was almost always good. But then something happened which turned this truism on its head: we started producing information faster than we could process them.
For more than a hundred thousand years, he said, the three basic stages of the communications process—production, distribution, and processing—were more or less in sync. With the introduction of various information technologies (e.g., computers, television, satellites, and more recently, the internet), however, this equilibrium was disrupted and has never recovered.
We transitioned from what Shenk calls a “state of information scarcity” to one of “information surplus.” Something that is still celebrated today, after ushering in new systems, new economies, and even new currencies. If oil barons reigned supreme before, it’s now tech companies, with their access to the bulk of the world’s data, that are at the top of the food chain. Everywhere one looks and it’s all about data-driven this, or data-intensive that. Everyone, it seems, wants in on the action.
This fascination has overshadowed the dark side of this development. It has prevented most people from realizing how information overload has also become this era’s new emotional, social, and political problem.
Consider the other alarming changes that coincided with the data explosion. Individual privacy is now more vulnerable than ever, given the obsession of governments and businesses with data collection.
Today’s children are so distracted that they are more prone to attention-deficit disorders, diminished language skills, and even poor reading comprehension.
Among adults, more people are complaining about and getting sick from stress, with many expressing exasperation as they fail to keep up with all the trappings of an information-rich environment: more emails to open, more calls to answer, more documents to review, more data to process.
As a society, we have also become more divisive and less inclined to compromise, with each side able to rely on an endless well of data to support its cause.
What’s worse is that a lot of the information out there is not even true or accurate.
Most people are so overwhelmed with data, few are able to spend time to sort them out properly. Zeroing in on the facts has become a monumental task. An unintended by-product has been the rise of the so-called “fake news” phenomenon. This, in turn, has aided the return of demagogues and populist leaders in all corners of the globe.
These can all be traced back to information overload. And just like excessive food consumption and our exploitation of the earth’s resources, the problem could lead to our collective downfall if we allow it to continue.
As individuals, we can be part of the solution by making an effort to reduce the data we give off and absorb. It’s like going on a data diet, shedding bytes and pieces of data at every chance we get. Not only do we improve our lives by reclaiming focus and privacy, we also reduce our contribution to the current state of information glut.
Here are five simple things we can do starting this new year:
1. Turn off the TV—including your other streaming devices. A very common mistake we make when we shut out the world is we turn to our TVs and computers to “escape.” We fail to realize that when we do so, we’re not really getting away from the world, we’re just choosing to engage with it using a different medium.
Especially with internet connectivity and streaming technology, we’re merely replacing one set of distractions with another. We are still exposing ourselves to too many channels, movies, TV shows, ads, and an endless supply of related videos and links. Try reading a book instead.
2. Put down your phone—including your other smart devices. It is so convenient now that we are almost always connected to the world. For the longest time, this has been described as liberating because it lets us have more control over our schedules. After all, we don’t need to stay put anymore if we’re waiting for an important call or are about to make one. Today, though, it’s starting to feel more like the opposite. More than anything else, we feel more hooked or tied down.
Mobile phones let our work and bosses follow us around. If it’s not that, it’s social media and other apps prying our attention away from life’s more precious moments: experiencing nature, spending time with loved ones, and appreciating face-to-face conversations. Next time you have a meal with your friend, put that phone aside. Turn off the notifications or at least keep them silent for a while.
3. Go easy with those emails. If you have multiple email accounts open all the time, you probably have that nagging desire to attend to all incoming messages in order to get some sense of accomplishment by day’s end. And I’m betting you constantly fail at it because those emails are just keep on coming no matter what you do. So, stop it.
We already spend too much time (roughly a third of our day) on emails that we actually end up neglecting other more important tasks. Remember, most of them can wait while we focus on more pressing concerns. If one is really that urgent, the person on the other end will most likely try to contact you through some other means. So start setting a cutoff time for all incoming emails. Anything that arrives beyond it, you promise to check the next day. Log off your account more often, too.
4. Be a data minimalist. It’s critical that we reflect on the fact that, as individuals, we are a major reason why we are neck-deep in data clutter. Most people’s social media activities illustrate this point perfectly—and no, it’s not just the food photos. It’s pictures of one’s plane ticket, that last meme you liked, your face (with or) with no makeup on, the movie you are about to watch (or just finished watching), and even the last thing that went through your head which you felt the world deserved to know.
Others take it further and include hashtags that take up more space than the actual content of their posts. Then there are the weird ones who actually react (i.e., like or comment) to their own posts. These are all manifestations of data pollution. Friends who do these are probably the reason why you don’t get to see content from other people you are genuinely interested in. They just post too much, too often, other materials quickly get buried under all that information muck. If you hate that, take the first step and restrain yourself when it comes to your own content.
5. Try intermittent data fasting. When I was preparing for the bar exams, I followed a strict regimen in order to stick to my review schedule. This included staying away from the internet for fixed periods during the day. It allowed me to focus only on the information I needed for the exams by leaving no space in my brain for data clutter. We have to develop a similar daily habit, or at least a variation thereof.
We need to be—to borrow Shenk’s words—our own “data dietitians.” Let’s examine our daily data intake and consider what‘s the healthy amount we can allow ourselves to absorb regularly. To be successful, we must be constantly aware what our goals are and the minimum amount of information we need to meet them.
There are plenty of other practical steps to follow. Seek them out and integrate them into your daily routine.
If we all chip in, even our individual actions, when taken together, can make a lot of difference. That’s definitely worth looking forward to starting this 2020.
Happy new year, everyone! Let’s all try to work with less, but with more meaningful and more secure data in the future.
Jamael Jacob (@jamjacob) is a lawyer specializing in the field of law, ICT, and human rights. He is currently the director of the University Data Protection Office of the Ateneo de Manila University, and policy and legal advisor to the Foundation for Media Alternatives. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the organizations he is currently affiliated with.