Charlie's Blog: IO



. . .my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.

Over the past few weeks, I have been dealing with problems with my internet service. Now, the problem was curious because my internet was not completely lost. In fact, I was able to continue blogging and do many of the necessary things. But I would have entire hours and even most of the day when the internet did not work at all. I did all sorts of things to remedy this problem with virtually no progress. The strange thing was that this schizophrenic internet was a blessing. I suddenly had more time to do things and read actual books versus lamenting that I didn't have time to read the books on my list. I adjusted my life to this third world level internet, and I admit that I was happier for it. Then, it got fixed, and I was back on the information nipple again. Life has returned to "normal," but I feel less happiness as a consequence.

I see the hand of Providence in my internet troubles. I think God was telling me something, so I will now tell it to you, Gentle Reader. We are deluged with a world of so much information that we are drowning in it. We have the internet, television, books, movies, Kindles, smartphones, and on and on. Currently, one satellite television service provider offers a DVR that will record up to 200 hours of programming. This is the equivalent of five standard work weeks. This begs a question. When would you have the time to actually watch 200 hours of programming? Assuming that new programming is being recorded while old programming is being watched, it becomes mathematically impossible to ever watch all those shows. We can laugh at the absurdity until we contemplate our own digital hordes. How many pieces of email are in your inbox? How many books are there on your Kindle that are unread? How many friends are you following on Facebook? The problem is ubiquitous.

Information overload or IO is when the quantity of information exceeds the time that you have to actually consume the information. It could be dead tree media like books, newspapers, or magazines, Or, it could be the digital media that comes to us via smartphone and the internet. But the actual time it would take to consume this information would take multiple lifetimes. Consider the old time newsstand. If the newsstand owner were to sit down and try to actually read every single line of every newspaper and magazine at his newsstand, he could not even come close to accomplishing this task even if he had a year to do it. And when you consider that this is just the information available for a single day for the newspapers and a single month for the magazines, the flow of new information comes faster than he can consume the old information.

Information overload has always been among us going back to the time when people laboriously copied books by hand on scrolls. In the days of paper books and analog media, the limit was primarily financial. Those copies of books and magazines cost money, so one's budget would limit one's information diet. Then, television happened, and the cost of information went down dramatically. This was the first time people lamented the time sucking nature of the media. I remember it came to a head for me in the nineties after reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I got rid of my television set. I went years without a dumb box in my home until 9/11 made me reconsider the value of having a television set. But to this day, my hourly television consumption for a typical week is in the single digits. The internet is another story.

The internet was primarily a text based medium in the nineties, and I still retained my analog media habits of reading books and listening to CDs. For me, the internet was simply a more convenient library than the real library. But there was another element to it that was different. The internet had a social dimension thanks to chat rooms, messageboards, and comboxes. I would interact with people in these various forums which was how my blogging career came to be. Then, social media happened, and it had the effect of an alcoholic moving from beer and wine to grain alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous and a place on the liver transplant list are needed at that point. Thankfully, I was able to overcome my Facebook addiction. But the general IO problem remained to the present.

Neil Postman died in 2003, so he is no longer here to give much direction in this Brave New World of IO. But he did have his finger on the problem. Here is Postman on the IO problem:
Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one's status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it.
The television problem was easily solved by unplugging the thing and putting it out with the next day's trash. The internet problem cannot be solved this way because it is a virtual necessity in today's world in much the same way that cellphones are a necessity because of the disappearance of pay phones. If you can't kill the beast, you must at least tame it. The problem is that we don't know how to do this.

I think the first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have a problem. I do not think it is a coincidence that texting and driving has now eclipsed drunk driving as a cause of highway death. For many drunks, the first DUI conviction is a wake up call. I think a similar thing may happen with smartphone addiction. Once you smash up your car and kill some other people in a traffic accident, I think this would motivate you to drop Facebook and go back to a flip phone. I was pondering with someone else why the cops aren't enforcing the laws against texting and driving since I catch people doing it multiple times a day, and we concluded that the cops were too busy on their own smartphones to catch people breaking the law. The only time a cop cares about your phone is when you are video recording him beating the crap out of an innocent person. But I digress. . .

Once you admit you have a problem, the next step is trying to solve the problem. Unfortunately, there is no 12-step program for information addiction. You could tell people to unplug from information completely, but this is not a solution anymore than fasting and starvation are the solution to overeating and obesity. At some point, you have to eat again. This requires learning to eat a better diet. But how do you put yourself on an information diet? No one seems able to offer one.

Before the internet, there was still more information than you could consume. As I have already pointed out, this problem has been with us since antiquity. The problem here is not an issue of quantity. The world does not have a problem with too much information anymore than it has a problem with too much food. The problem with information like the problem with food is that we have lost the ability to choose and limit our consumption. Just like fast food made calories convenient and cheap, the internet did the same with information. Since people tend to like to eat crap food, it stands to reason that they also like crap information. This is why what began as a network of academics and government workers is now a vehicle for watching dogs on skateboards or people lighting their own farts. Then, there is the underworld of porn that runs beneath the internet like a sewer of endless filth. But that is a topic for another essay.

What the internet did was make information cheap and convenient. Prior to the internet, information cost money to produce, distribute, and consume. This made people selective about the information they consumed because they only had so much money to spend. With the internet, the cost is now so low that selection has vanished such that the limiting factor is no longer money but time. So, the most obvious answer to this information gluttony would be portion control. But portion control does not work with people's food diets, so it will not work with people's information diets. Sitting down with an egg timer at your computer is not going to solve the problem.

What I have learned from following a vegan diet is that the solution is not to limit quantity but to improve the quality of what you consume. The quality of much of the information today is incredibly low relative to what it was at the beginning of the internet. The reason for this is clear. The internet moved from being a text based forum to being more of a visual based forum. Text would be the carbohydrate of information while pictures and videos are the fat. So, the best information on the internet would be something like Wikipedia while the worst information comes from YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. If you wanted to redeem the internet, the easiest way to accomplish this would be to have a feature that disabled pictures and videos. This would take care of the porn problem. Those memes would vanish. Facebook would be a cyber ghost town. A purely text based internet would remedy many problems, but the carbohydrate would be a simple sugar. This is better than fat but not by much.

In my own life, I have discovered that the best information and experiences come from books while the worst information and experiences I have come from movies. Books are at the top while movies are at the bottom. As you can guess, I don't watch many movies. If you devoted the bulk of your leisure time to books, you simply won't do any better. Books are the fruits and vegetables and starches of the information world. The bulk of your information consumption should come from books. Virtually none should come from movies or television. This is pure Postman which leaves the middle ground of the internet.

The biggest step in taming the internet is to eliminate in entirety all social media from your information consumption. As I write this, I have deactivated my Twitter account which was my last attachment to the social media world. Nothing exists prior to the internet that is analogous to social media. People might chat at the water cooler at work or cocktail parties in the past, but these things are now peopled by smartphone zombies who spend more time on their screens than having real social interaction. It is sickening in the same way that Hugh Hefner ignores his harem of playmates to go pleasure himself with internet porn. Social media is purely an internet phenomenon, and it bears the blame for much of the complaints about the internet. And why is this? This is because social media is not the pooling of intelligence but the pooling of ignorance. Basically, it is people sharing pictures and videos of the most frivolous stuff you can imagine.

With social media gone, this leaves email. Processing email to inbox zero is fairly easy if you have your spam filter activated. The next layer of protection is unsubscribing from any newsletters, notices, alerts, and sales pitches you don't need or care to read. Doing this is like the trash can they kept in the mailroom at an apartment complex where I lived once. The sales circulars and junk went straight in the can leaving the good stuff. Your email should be like this. Email is the primary and most important source of information on the internet for you because this is how people get in touch with you. But if you let it turn into a trash can, the garbage will overwhelm you.

The next thing is to have a newspaper. This is not an actual physical newspaper because those things are rapidly disappearing. What you need is an internet substitute, and they exist. It could be the New York Times or the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post or whatever. The main thing is to have roughly one source you go to for news of the world. For me, I use Google News.

The last thing is to have a way to follow narrow interests.  These are the interests related to your vocation and hobbies or whatever. This can be done with a link list or a feed reader. I prefer Feedly as it collects articles that I usually read on the weekends. This collection becomes your magazine rack.

This threefold strategy is analogous to what the world was like before the internet when you read your mail, your newspaper, and your magazines. Since no one reads books on the internet, they will still be read in the real world either in paper form or on an e-reader with the preference being for paper.

The bad part of the internet are those visual mediums that I mentioned before like Instagram or YouTube. The time/value ratio of those mediums are awful and should be reduced to a minimum of consumption. This would be the Postman advice to get rid of your TV set.

The midpoint between text and video is audio. In the real world, we know this as radio. Online, it would be streaming and podcasting and the like. Many videos on YouTube are actually audio in disguise. Whether it is music or talk, audio is almost never a bad thing. This is because audio never eats your time. It does not demand your full attention like a text or visual based medium does. This is why many workplaces and job sites tolerate radios. If books are the carbs of your information diet, audio is the water. In my home, I have one TV, but I have four radios and a Bluetooth speaker for podcasts.

To recap, this is what a good information diet looks like:

text based websites

And this is what a bad information diet looks like:

video/picture based websites
social media

The result of following the good information diet should be an increase in useful information with a decrease in time spent consuming it. You should also find the good information diet more satisfying. The reason I know this is because this was the information diet I lived on prior to the internet. The internet extended it for me until I became consumed in social media and the visual. Now, I am making my way back to a more word based information diet. The internet should make you smarter and not dumber, but it is now making us into a nation of social media idiots. The problem is not that we have too much information, but that the information is unsatisfying. So we consume more and more while getting less and less from what we consume. Even in a more word based information diet, we can make better choices. But the visually based and social media driven information diet is a virtual desert when it comes to useful knowledge or reasoned discourse. Go with the words and not the pictures if you want to get smarter.

Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since.