Charlie's Blog: Sensibility and the Information Buffet


Sensibility and the Information Buffet

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

There has always been a wealth of information. We like to think that our age somehow developed a surplus of information, but we didn't. A newsstand from 1953 contained more information than you could read in a year. The reason no one attempted it is because you had to pay money for that information. As for people staring into their smartphones, they were doing the same thing back in the day with their newspapers, magazines, and paperback novels. Nothing has fundamentally changed except the price of that information. You had to pay for those publications. Today, you pay for internet and cellphone access while the information is virtually limitless and free. It is a buffet, and some people attempt the all-you-can-eat challenge. This is stupid.

People tend to spend more to dine at the all-you-can-eat buffet than at a traditional restaurant thinking they will bust the establishment in the head by eating twice or three times the amount of food. The reality is that they will consume an amount only slightly larger than they normally do. If you pay three times the normal cost but only eat 1.5 times the normal amount of food, they busted you in the head. Yet, people keep lining up for those buffets. Why?

The answer to that question is obvious. People's imaginations are stronger than their observations. A classic example of this is Netflix. I used to have a Netflix membership when they sent you DVDs in the mail. I filled up my queue of movies and proceeded to watch them as they arrived. I would spend entire weekends binge watching stuff until I got sick of it. Before long, I would have a Netflix DVD collecting dust on the coffee table and paying $10 or whatever it was per month for what turned out to be a coaster. What I thought I was going to watch turned out to be way less than I imagined. I made a personal queue of what I actually wanted to watch versus what I could watch, and it was only a handful of movies. I did the math, and it was just cheaper for me to buy the 2 or 3 good movies on DVD that came out each year than pay rent on all the crap that was available on Netflix. I cancelled Netflix. The fact that it is a streaming service now only makes it worse. You are saving them the postage while paying for the higher bandwidth internet. They've got a great scam going there.

Streaming services are an entertainment buffet sort of like cable television. Many people are waking up on cable TV and cutting the cord. I know we did. We watch TV over the air on a $9 antenna. We don't do Roku or Chromecast or Prime or any of that garbage you have to buy. I don't watch much TV except as a weekend treat because the visual processing messes with my TBI. We watch old westerns and Columbo right now. Watching too much television makes me ill.

When I apply a quality test to the content, there's not much worth watching. Life is too short to waste on bad movies and television shows. The quantity is off the chain. OAB TV is not the same as the four channels we got when I was a kid with the fourth channel being PBS. Broadcast television has almost as much content as basic cable television except you don't have to pay for it. I'm not going to watch something just because it is free. That brings us to the internet.

Like the old newsstand, they upload more videos and content in a single hour on the internet than you could consume in your entire life. I find the sheer bulk of this information to be overwhelming. It becomes less overwhelming when you apply a quality filter. Just because they produce it doesn't mean you have to consume it.

I am better than most on this issue for two reasons. The first is that I do not own a smartphone. The second is that I do not have any social media accounts. Those two things alone will allow you to get back much of your time and attention. Still, I developed a bad habit that goes back almost two decades. I was maintaining a digital hoard with my feed reader.

I was a fan of the Google Reader when it first appeared and think it was one of the greatest services they ever offered. The Google folks discovered that the Reader was hurting their other ventures like Google+. The fact is that a feed reader allows you to choose what you want to see versus what they want you to see. Regardless, they killed the Reader, and I went to Feedly. They were generous with their service until they cut the the number of feeds you could have on the free version of their application and on the paid version. So, I looked at Inoreader and paid for an unlimited subscription which I abused.

I never looked at the vast majority of my feed subscriptions which were in the thousands. I was OK because following the feed was enough to make me think I was actually reading the content. I was deluding myself with this nonsense. I was at the information buffet but only eating the same few dishes I actually liked. It hit me that this behavior was foolish, but I didn't know what to do except keep paying the subscription on what amounted to a digital storage space for content I was never going to consume. I was a shameful information hoarder.

It took me a couple of days of thinking to figure out what to do about my problem. The solution I reached was to delete all of those feeds and start over with a 150 feed limit which is how many you can have on Inoreader on the free level. I added back from memory the feeds I actually enjoyed, and it was less than 100. I had repeated the Netflix episode except with the feed reader.

I have likely lost the Gentle Reader at this stage of my personal tale. But if you made it this far, here is the payoff. If you are someone who is struggling with information overwhelm, I have two tools from the sensibility toolbox that can help you.

1. Go with quality over quantity.

You know what you like and what is valuable. If you apply a quality filter to your content, you will find that quality is in short supply. We force feed ourselves crap when it is cheap and plentiful, and we purge when get sick from it.

2. Go with the actual over the imagined.

My feed reader has stats on what I read, and what I actually read isn't that much. We want the options even though we are never going to use them. This embracing of the actual over the imagined requires a great deal of honesty and self-awareness.

This brings us to a concept made famous by Tim Ferriss--the low information diet. This is the practice of selective ignorance. Basically, you cut out everything for a week to break the information addiction. I don't know what you do after this information fast. I just know the correct path lies between knowing nothing and knowing everything. Ferriss is an extremist on things, so he gets credit for experimenting and thinking outside of the box.

I believe in having a sensible information diet. Like with food, you want higher quality and lower quantity. You want to avoid the extremes of starvation and gluttony. Somewhere between those extremes is the right amount of information you should consume on a regular basis.