There’s more information available to humans than ever. But it isn’t making us more informed thinkers.
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When Ahmer Arif was a graduate student in information science at the University of Washington, he, along with several undergraduates, began a study of the circumstances surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The flight in 2014 mysteriously crashed over Ukraine, killing all of the nearly 300 people onboard. This was well before concerns about disinformation were culturally prominent. So they were surprised when, instead of getting closer to an understanding of what happened, the information they encountered on social media and news sites hit them like a firehose of competing claims: the plane was shot down because it was trying to ram another plane carrying Russian President Vladimir Putin; the strike was an assassination attempt on Putin, who was aboard the plane; and even that the people on the plane were dead before the explosion.
“It was like taking a radio that’s blasting static and strapping it to the side of your head for a couple of hours. We got disoriented. We felt overwhelmed and kind of hopeless,” Arif recounts today. “A year after that, we discovered there was a Russian operation specifically designed to flood the information space with so much nonsense that you just want to walk away.” (International investigators now allege that the plane was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile as part of an ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists.)
His unsuccessful attempt to uncover the truth inspired Arif, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas Austin’s School of Information, to focus his research on misinformation and disinformation. Yet his experience of burning out on information feels relatable beyond the world of fake news. For many of us, becoming disoriented, overwhelmed, and hopeless describes just another day in our chaotic web of social media, email, team chat tools, and the 24/7 news cycle.
Information was supposed to empower us, to encourage an expansion of democracy, greater transparency, and genuine innovation. But today, there’s a sense that we’re drowning in a sea of Too Much Information, and that it’s making things worse—exacerbating political conflict, making it too easy to Google an ex or compare ourselves to someone we haven’t seen since college, and forcing us to constantly tread water to keep up.
“Information overload is one of the side effects of an information society operating under a ‘more-faster-better’ philosophy of life,” says David M. Levy, a professor of information science at University of Washington. “For a variety of reasons—some economic, some social, and some spiritual—our society’s sense of progress and achievement is tied to the accelerated production of material and information goods.”
Concerns about information overload have come about with every new technology, even the printing press. But we’re living through an information explosion that dwarfs anything seen in the earlier eras: 90 percent of the world’s information was produced in the year 2013 alone, with an exponential increase in the years since.
What’s also different from the earlier eras is the way the information is presented. Books, the newspaper, the radio, and even TV, allow us to focus on one text or program at a time. Digital media aggregates bits of unrelated information without end. It induces the feeling we have to constantly monitor our information sources, jumping between social media, text chains, email inboxes, and team chat tools, which promised to save us from email instead of adding yet another thing to check.
Taking in information this way is the mental equivalent of pounding shots. The human brain can process only three to seven pieces of information at a time, according to various psychology studies. After that, we experience information overload, where cognitive function weakens, leading to reduced concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities.
“[I]f you’re simply responding to bits of stimulation, you won’t ever go deep,” as psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has said.
But even as higher order thinking wears down, we are instinctively drawn to information, particularly when its novel, contains conflict, or is positively reinforcing. As Nicholas Carr has pointed out in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brain, our current media environment harkens back to oral tradition, when communication was more communal, stimulating, and unstructured. The problem is that our current world is magnitudes more complex than that earlier era, not just the great challenges of our time like the climate crisis and social injustice, but simply doing what’s expected of us at work, making decisions for ourselves and our families, even basic things like signing up with an internet provider or going grocery shopping. Social media like Facebook and YouTube captures and exhausts attention that we arguably need to simply get through life. The apps are intentionally designed to exploit our brain’s primitive tendencies, with features such as likes, infinite scroll, and opaque algorithms that choose what we see, only to leave us feeling more anxious, unhappy, and ineffective after we’ve consumed too much.
Moreover, many of us have livelihoods that are at least somewhat tied up with staying connected, whether you’re a writer like me who benefits from a following on Twitter (or might benefit from putting out a Substack but also doesn’t know if the world needs yet another newsletter), a business owner who has to manage a Facebook page, an influencer who needs to keep people entertained on Instagram or TikTok, or anyone who needs to network on LinkedIn, that most dreaded of apps.
And socially, we gain currency from sharing and liking what others share, whether it’s new houseplants, our vaccine status, or support for a political cause. Turning off comes with the cost of losing touch with people, especially in a year when we were limited in how much we could see each other.
All of this amounts to a tragedy of the commons, according to Nathan Zeldes, a computer engineer who was early to identify and implement strategies to limit the problem of email overload when he worked at Intel in the mid-1990s. We’d all love there to be less noise, but in an environment that incentivizes TMI, it’s in no one’s self-interest to stop.
Yet we may have hit a limit. Social media use in the U.S. has begun to level off, after steadily increasing over the 2010s, and 45 percent of Facebook users, 29 percent of TikTok users, and 22 percent of Instagram users say they consider quitting. Stories of people quitting social media altogether and finding their lives improve considerably were highlighted recently in Buzzfeed, Huck Mag, and the Guardian.
Like the people in these stories, I’ve found that cutting my social media use has helped reduce how much time I spend unhelpfully comparing myself to others. I can tell myself that Instagram is a highlight’s reel while scrolling at the end of a bad day, but if my attention is on it, it will have a power over me that I’d rather it didn’t.
“It can be hard to stop those comparisons even when we do remind ourselves. We can understand that cognitively and it can still affect us emotionally,” as Erin Vogel, a postdoctoral fellow in social psychology at Stanford University who has studied this issue, says.
Once a news junkie, I’ve also cut back on that, for similar reasons. I turned off New York Times notifications in 2017 and quit doomscrolling Twitter during the pandemic. After a certain point, the information just left me feeling anxious and despairing, not empowered. A 2019 study of South Korean adults reflects my experience, having found that when people got too much news from social media, they felt less effective at making sense of it, leading many to avoid seeking it altogether. That has “implications in terms of democratic citizenship,” study author Chang Sup Park noted.
“When people are mired in a state of doubt and division, they don’t know how to act in their best interest, which means they don’t have a sense of agency,” Arif says.
There’s no doubt that digital technology and the information sharing it enables has social benefits, particularly in that it has allowed so many people without access to power to disseminate information unhindered by traditional gatekeepers. But it’s becoming increasingly pressing—because of burnout, political conflict, and mental health crises—that we address its excesses, both individually and collectively.
The first step, experts say, is to understand how you feel when you’re operating in your information environment. Levy, who wrote a book called Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, has his students do a “mindfulness check-in,” where they reflect on their breathing, posture, emotions, and attention while using email or social media. What they often notice is that they engage in behaviors that aren’t productive, like switching immediately to something else when a page is slow to load, known as context switching, or multi-tasking. When we’re in this “work mode,” as Levy calls it, we tend to become disengaged from our body—whether we’re feeling pain or are tired or hungry. People even suspend steady breathing while checking email, which Linda Stone, a writer and speaker on the issue of attention, coined “email apnea.”
“We get into this mode where there are no gaps,” says Levy. “It becomes harder for us to slow down, to cultivate periods where we’re not constantly doing things.”
This state makes it difficult to take in and assimilate information. “If you’re distracted—if your attention is shifting very quickly—you can gather lots of information in a very swift fashion, but you’re not going to assemble it very well into knowledge. It’s going to just remain bits of information. You’re not going to develop a rich store of personal knowledge, which is all about connections and associations,” says Carr.
With the rise of social media, Meg Mott, professor emeritus at Marlboro College, observed this in her students.
“It was easy for them to say, ‘so-and-so said this,’ but they couldn’t process and think for themselves. They knew what everyone else knew, but they didn’t know inside, they had never really taken the time to think.”
To help them practice deeper thinking, she had them create a “commonplace book,” a method of self-education, used by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, that involves writing by hand passages that jump out from assigned reading. The idea is to “sync your mental rhythms to the pace of the author’s mind,” and take the time to think about what the passage means and your reactions to it.
“I’m pushing against information overload by saying, ‘carve out a space for yourself. Engage with the world at a slower pace. Be the decider of what counts in your space and what doesn’t,’” she says.
Still, when so many forces reward staying connected, it’s hard to disconnect. What gives activists and academics who work on this issue some optimism is the growing pushback against Big Tech, which was minimal even five years ago. Former President Donald Trump’s toxic use of Twitter, culminating in the January 6 coup and subsequent ban, as well as films like 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, have pushed awareness of the dark side of social media into the mainstream.
Groups like Children’s Screentime Action Network are working on initiatives to limit kids’ use of tech in schools and promote digital literacy. “It’s important for people to know that the tech is built to create that problem of overuse, and that there are people working to create healthy tech,” says Jean Rogers, the organization’s director.
Members of Generation Z, often portrayed as “digital natives,” are spearheading collective efforts like mass detoxes and No Social Media November.
“We deserve so much more than what social media, what tech offers us,” says Celine Bernhardt-Lanier, 16, who next year will become director of the Gen-Z run Log Off. She’s started a Well-Being Initiative to help teens connect with others, themselves, and nature, after her own disillusion with a social media “rabbit hole” of scrolling that made her feel “out of touch with my emotional reality.”
A 2020 suit by the Federal Trade Commission and 46 states and an impending investigation by the European Union could lead to breaking up Facebook. The proposed Kids Internet Design and Safety or KIDS Act would ban platforms directed at children from using features that keep them glued to their apps such as likes, auto-play, and push alerts. Another bill would hold tech companies liable for algorithms that promote political extremism.
What feels underappreciated is how radical an act it is to put a buffer between oneself and what Vivienne Westwood called “the abundance of everything.” It severs us from what our economy and culture tell us to be: productive, connected, in-the-know, and always wanting more, as Jenny O’Dell describes so beautifully in How to Do Nothing. In an unrestrained information environment, the most immediate way of resisting, as O’Dell and others have pointed out, is recognizing the power of our attention.
“The management of information is an old problem. We will continue producing larger and larger volumes of information and find new and better ways to store it, organize it, disseminate it,” says Arif, the misinformation researcher. “But for information to have pay off, you have to invest attention into it. Attention is a fixed human capacity, so how do we make wiser use of our attention? That gets back to trust, who do you entrust with your attention.”
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