Information diets

What happens when we finally reach a point of information saturation? Can we see information in the same way as food? Some food would be healthy, some would be unhealthy, but no matter what food – overeating is never a good thing.

In 2004 Jimmy Wales was quoted saying (“Wikimedia Founder Jimmy Wales Responds,” Slashdot (2004-07-28)):

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge

This is, in essence, a wonderful idea – but imagine what will happen in a world were the sum of all human knowledge is available? I began to explore this in a presentation called Wikipedia & Dr Faustus? where I discussed the effects all the worlds information being made available.

The problem with wishing for access to information is that we today have an infrastructure that can provide all the information that we desire but the technology will not discriminate between healthy and unhealthy information. As part of summer reading I began The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser and came across an interesting quote from Danah Boyd from her speech at the 2009 Web 2.0 Expo:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat an sugars because they’re rare in nature… In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Maybe Boyd is making a value judgement on the different forms of information and compares the “gross, violent, or sexual” to fatty foods – which would probably make necessary facts and information (e.g. maps, statistics) high protein or high fiber. In relation to food we are programmed for fats and sugars but in relation to information we are programmed to relationships. Information about which berries are edible varies but information about relations is universal. We are programmed to be wary of precisely the gross, the sexual, the humiliating and the embarrassing – our survival in the group depends upon it.

The problem is that our interests in these areas is related to other people, people who we are not related to or dependent upon they serve only as entertainment or simple diversion. The evolutionary role of diversion is unclear but we certainly do seem to desire it – or at least fear boredom. So in our desire to avoid boredom we overindulge in our consumption of unhealthy information.

There are basically two ways of dealing with over-consumption (1) more exercise, or (2) dieting. The former is not really efficient but is more a method of coping with the effects of over-consumption. The latter is healthier as it reduces the intake and avoids the negative side effects of over-consumption. Exercise is hard work, but dieting is harder still. It goes against all our natural instincts to overindulge in preparation for the next information glut.

We need to learn healthy information habits right from the start and to ensure that we keep away from information binges. Staying information healthy may be important, but it sure sounds boring.