A public policy staffer to the President of the United States arrives at the White House at 7 am. Settling in a swivel chair behind an executive oakwood desk in a moderately-sized office, he sips his Starbucks and scans the material in front of him, newspapers. The New York Times, The Washington Post, this month’s edition of Time Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. The year is 1993, and that Starbucks down the street is brand new to the East Coast. The medium through which everyone on Capitol Hill made sense of the approaching day’s events, was the print newspaper publication. There was not a wide-array of choices in mass circulation available, and the headlines of each were near identical, though the analysis and opinion of those headlines differed. There was a clarity to the day’s agenda. The press, politician, and white collar worker commuting into the city were, quite literally, on the same page.
That quaint phenomena is now passed, superseded by the instantaneous ability to share and receive information from a proliferation of sources on almost any issue occurring even in real time. Cable media and the internet have replaced the old approach to receiving information, though not eliminate it, as the novelty of it lives on. A frequent argument made in opposition to this new experience is the concern that “we live in an age of too much information”. The individual is unable to keep pace with the amount of information being received. The brain, functioning as a processor like that of a computer, does not have the capacity to store and remember all the information we’re seeking to import. Shane Parish of Farnam Street Daily comments on Daniel J. Levitine’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload that “we’re overwhelmed with things disguised as wisdom or even information and we’re forced to sort through the nonsense.” As a result, people are forgetting, even for only temporary periods, important things like bank PIN’s, email passwords, and where the car keys were last left. In addition to forgetting the important things, new information has no time to be collected and stored in long-term memory. A tweet is read and then forgotten almost as quickly as it took to read it. Author Clay Johnson acknowledges that a great deal of information exists, but that the issue is not the amount of information available. Put simply, as the title of his book, many of us have to go on The Information Diet. “There has always been more human knowledge and experience than any one human could absorb. It’s not the total amount of information, but your information habit that is pushing you to whatever extreme you find uncomfortable.” His advice is for individuals to be more selective about the information they intake, and become more conscious of chosen consumption. For some, this could mean unfollowing some sources on Twitter which haven’t lead to any greater appreciation of life and intellect. For others, it may mean deciding what times of the day to read that overloading E-mail inbox connected directly to the Smartphone, and turning off its notifications when those windows are closed. “Just as too much junk food can lead to obesity, too much information can lead to stupidity.” Discriminating in the information we choose to receive can allow for a more comprehensive conversation with that information, making us smarter, and more intellectually active in the long-run.
Understanding the fundamentals, rather than seeking out an overload of new and largely useless information, will provoke a sharper grasp of concepts we seek to understand. Scanning a large volume of information quickly will rarely lead to an improved recollection of that material. Tad Waddington notes in Psychology Today that there is a science to memory. As every student learns when studying for exams, “forgetting follows a pattern. There are steep drop offs in retention after 60 minutes and after 24 hours.” Information should be consumed for its meaning, examined for its logic, and critically evaluated against other samples of substance.
A greater access to information allows each individual to decide what is of substance to them. Navigating the labyrinth of information on the internet is a challenge, but by maintaining good dietary habits, an improved lifestyle can be achieved, where deeper contemplation of what ones engaged with can thrive. Time off from new information of the quantities we regularly consume is also an important factor. With our habits of a modern lifestyle, time is necessary to pause from consumption, and think. Letting information store in long-term memory, and readdressing it at a later point without the flurry of new information, allows for reexamination of the original material in its own context; was what I read a few weeks ago as sound as it is today now that I have had time to digest it? To ignore this advice could result in stress, anxiety, hazy memory, and general unhappiness. Humans have a natural gift for taming the elements. Information is a new element, and individuals can adjust and tame it for fulfilling purposes.
WORKS CITED (in order of appearance)