Having commented on this post on the subject of ‘infobesity’ earlier, I thought that I would post my comments here. The following post contains my original comment, followed by some further thoughts on the matter.
Infobesity or a Changing Relationship with Information?
I don’t find the obesity metaphor as helpful as some others seem to. I also find the explanation of regular obesity in this video in terms of overconsumption rather than overload far too simplistic and quite unfair and inaccurate a portrayal of people who struggle with obesity. It seems to me that applying an analogy so drawn to our relationship with information is bound to lead to a failure to reckon with the serious systemic issues and challenges that we face, attributing problems primarily to overconsumption, rather than a transformed relationship with information on many levels.
If we were to redraw the obesity analogy, I believe that we should focus on the broader concept of our culture’s changing relationship with food, rather than simplistically on the idea of getting overweight. Our culture has an overabundance of food, yet our bodies were designed for situations of relative food scarcity, we have an economic system tailored to increase appetite and foods designed to be eaten without filling us up, we have incessant advertising designed to create want, we have an attenuated culture of communal eating, and food production has become a heavily industrialized process. Through the labyrinth of our economic system, our relationship to our food’s origins has become opaque. We have developed an anthropology that leads us to idolize physical health and appearance and people like the obese and smokers have become some of our greatest sinners, and body image has become central to self-worth (sexual self-realization, by contrast, is perhaps the telos of the human being, so pretty much anything goes on that front).
Cooking, while increasingly valued and celebrated as a middle class hobby, does not occupy the same quotidian place in many people’s lives following the advent of ready meals. We have an overreliance upon certain unhealthy foods and ingredients. Food and eating have become increasingly detached from the broader ends and realization of our human nature and the satisfaction of our appetite for beauty, sociality, love, order, worship, etc. We have framed our relationship with food in terms of metaphors, habits, and practices that encourage a binge-purge mentality and approach. With changing family form, many of the traditional forms of initiation into and training within a culture of food, its production and consumption, have been lost, without something clear to take their place. We have demanded certain virtues of our food that are not necessarily virtues at all: readiness, speed, size, efficiency, uniformity, convenience, etc. Obesity is merely one effect among many of this changing relationship with food, a changing relationship that, to some degree or other, and in some manner or other, affects us all. Perhaps our relationship to information has undergone a similar change.
‘Information’ as a Mediator of Relationships
At this point, though, I think that we ought to ask what exactly we mean by ‘information’. I suspect that the term conceals as much as it reveals: I would argue far more even than the word ‘food’. In thinking about my relationship with the Internet, I am not sure that the term ‘information’ really begins to get to grips with most of the reasons why I use it. Much of the time, the Internet can be more akin to a worldwide conversation about the weather than about a place one goes to be informed. It is about feeling ‘connected’: the information that is conveyed isn’t really the point.
Just as food is seriously misunderstood if it is reduced to biological fuel, so communication ‘content’ is seriously misunderstood if it is reduced to ‘information’. Food is a mediator of relationships with our bodies, cultures, communities, families, world, nature, our core values, and our faith. Much of the food that we eat and most of the expectations that we have of it go far beyond what would be expected of something that was no more than biological fuel.
In like manner, ‘information’ is a mediator of relationships with our world, ideas, values, other persons, communities, identities, etc. The real issue is not quantity of information (suggested by terms such as overload or overconsumption), but the shifting way in which our relationships are being mediated in the modern world. For instance, our new forms of communication can lead to a sort of ‘malnutrition’ in our relationships, as touch is depreciated, and sight is overvalued.
One of the problems with modern food culture is that it has tended to peddle a highly distorted vision of the relationships that it mediates, and has ceased to be very effective as a mediator of certain relationships, leaving us with a hunger that cannot easily be satisfied, even with greater consumption. It has framed our relationships in a way that encourages unhealthy and fraught relationships with our bodies and body image. The distortion of the relationships mediated by food, both in vision and in practice, produces symptoms such as obesity, anorexia, bulimia, diet obsessions, binging, body image problems and body dysmorphia, poor nutrition, a loss of communal eating in some contexts, etc.
I believe that similar effects can be seen in the case of the Internet. While the Internet, like things such as the Green Revolution, have led to incredible gains for humankind, and I doubt that (m)any of us would really wish to return to the world that pre-existed them, they have led to a significant change in the way that we relate to our world, our beliefs, our values, and each other. Many of these changes have been quite unhealthy, and we must grapple with the symptoms, seeking to address the problems, without jettisoning the gains.
I believe that we should start by thinking in terms of the nature, purposes, and means of communication and situate our thinking about ‘information’ online in the broader context of our mediated relationships. When was the last time you expressed presence to someone in touch? How does taste mediate your relationship with the world? When was the last time you closed your eyes and just listened to something for an hour? Do you have senses or forms of relationship that you haven’t been developing or feeding? When was the last time you acted offline on something that you heard online? What exactly have you gained from following dozens of blogs, hundreds of tweeters, a thousand Facebook friends, etc.? How has this changed your relationship with others, both enriching and weakening? How has the Internet brought you closer to others, while simultaneously also pulling you apart in other respects? Has the Internet ever served as a fast, convenient, and ready communication substitute for far more socially ‘nutritious’ forms of interactions? When was the last time you decided to call on a friend rather than just e-mailing/texting/chatting to them online? Etc., etc.
The Purpose of Information
Approaching this from another direction, I wonder whether it makes sense to speak about information ‘overconsumption’ or ‘overload’, without first asking the question of what information is for. Speaking about ‘data’ or ‘information’ presents communication content in a latent form, while communication has generally been seen as purposive and directed in character.
Communication is about producing connection between persons, engagement with and understanding of the world and ideas, sharing of knowledge, formation of wisdom, expression of feelings, excitement, evocation, or direction of desire, the production of action by command, exhortation, or persuasion, manifestation of personal and emotional presence, declaration of judgment, the performative creation of new symbolic states of affairs, and the facilitation of decision. I think that the problems that we face lie less at the level of ‘information’ and more at the level of ‘communication’.
The information ecology that we have today, perhaps especially online, increasingly struggles to achieve and hampers the ends of communication in particular contexts. As communication fails to achieve its ends, information reverts to a latent or inchoate state and overwhelms and disorients us. The Internet becomes a hurly-burly of data and information, a babel of conversations vying for our attention, a noise in which we must search for signal. The Internet provides us with a wealth of information, but is less effective at communicating to us in a manner that promotes action, fosters non-anxious decision, deepens wisdom, and encourages a fixed and settled desire. The Internet does not train us in these skills: we must bring them to the Internet.
Unhealthy Relationships with Data
I believe that this is in part a product of the Internet itself, but perhaps more fundamentally attributable to the way that we relate to it. However, the Internet is frequently the objectification of our unhealthy relationship with data (much of the following builds on observations by Edwin Friedman, explored in the post just linked), our forgetfulness of the ends of communication, and our loss of robust and imaginative agency, which is why it can exacerbate the problem.
The effect of an addiction to information and data is a difficulty to desire anything wholeheartedly, to be decisive and resolved, to be unreservedly present to others, to foster the deep passions of the heart over ephemeral feelings, to acquire profound wisdom rather than just technical skills, to arrive at genuine understanding and insight rather than mere awareness of data. Well-communicated information, carefully selected for its relevance, can be tremendously empowering and can help us in these ends. However, not much information falls into this category, only a limited amount is needed, and the more irrelevant or excessive information that we consume, the less equipped we are for robust, determined, committed, wise, understanding, and decisive agency.
At the heart of our problem is our belief that more information is better, our overreliance on the social sciences and constant gathering of data for decision-making, our belief that knowledge of information and technique is the most fundamental basis of competence, and our failure to hold imagination and clearly defined personal agency as the core principles of our engagement with the world.
Information Addicts and the Information Crack House
The person who is addicted to information can’t get the big picture and discern meaning, as they are always frantically caught up in gathering fragmented, contradictory, and uncommunicative information, which leads to a failure of understanding and action. The person who is addicted to information is always second-guessing themselves, doubting their course of action, and losing the power to be decisive. The person who is addicted to information in the form of stimulation (or bombarded with advertising) is likely to become unable to fix their desire wholeheartedly on one thing and pursue it with an undivided mind.
The Internet enables and encourages this addiction in several respects. The Internet can be a crack house for information addicts, where we are surrounded by the substance, the habits, the addicts, and the pushers. On the Internet, information consumption and proliferation is the primary means of connection: if you limit your consumption and pushing of information in order to act, people think that you are dropping out and moving away from them. It is hard to opt out of the habits of the Internet while remaining in it and to set our own limits on our use, as people are constantly using the communication of information to us as a means of connection to us: if we resist we are not appreciated and can become isolated, as other offline means of social communication are less consistently employed (how many personal letters have you handwritten so far this year?). In other words, while there is no reason why the Internet must be a place of atrophying information addiction (perhaps no more than the architecture of the crack house necessarily determines that its residents will be drug users), it has become such a place for many.
Kicking the Information Habit
Breaking with information addiction is in part a matter of highlighting the role played by individual agency over environmental factors. Effective action in the world is a lot less about incessantly tweaked technique or method consistent with ever-accumulating and varying information and data than it is about such skills as the ability to be decisive and to have the nerve and will to stick with the course that you have set. The proliferation of confusing data, which generally focuses on problems that encourage passivity, rather than highlighting the differentiating role that can be played by involved and committed personal agency makes people scared of doing anything. For instance, if you followed all of the Daily Mail’s advice regarding carcinogenic products you would be paranoid and paralyzed. The skill that we most need is that of discerning the information that really matters, the information that guides positive agency, completely ignoring the rest, and putting our best foot forward.
To be a good leader, parent, pastor, you really don’t need the Internet all that much. You don’t need to keep up with all of the journals, conferences, books, blogs, news, tweets, profile updates, online articles, etc. to perform your task well. You really don’t. Trust me, I’ve tried it. In ignoring 99% of it completely you will be much more effective, decisive, committed, understanding, and wise. For that remaining 1% it is an incomparable and immensely valuable resource and medium, but after that it tends to hinder rather than help the communicative ends of information.
Smart Information Gathering
There is a rather misguided idea that has considerable cultural purchase: that the smartest person is the person who has read the most books and other material. In fact, the smartest people are most characterized, not by the large piles of books that they have read, but by their ability to discern the really important information and insights and ignore the rest, to be profoundly shaped and informed by the best forms of information, while being largely indifferent towards everything else. Too many people have read many books, but not enough of the best books, and show the lack.
Like the material on the Internet, 99% of books can be ignored completely with no great loss. Among the remaining 1%, one need not study everything. When you are fairly familiar with a field, for instance, a significant portion of any book on the subject can be skimmed over quickly, as it won’t contain anything new or relevant. In many cases, you will lose time and gain little by reading it. Many books will only have one or two good ideas or insights to pass on, and often even a quick skim-read of a few brief sections suffices to pick these ideas up. By contrast, the books that are most important and formative are worth returning to with considerable frequency. These books should be repeatedly be read in an inefficient and time-intensive manner.
The ends of information and its communication must be paramount in our minds all of the time. When the gathering of information becomes an end in itself, supplanting its communicative and formative purposes we may need radically to reassess our practice. ‘Information’ exists to mediate relationship and connectedness with the world, ourselves, each other, our visions, thoughts, ideas, passions, and feelings. Like a thickening lens, an accumulation of superfluous information can blur beyond recognition what it once brought into focus. It can dull and confuse the action that it once directed and sap the will that it once spurred.
Information must, therefore, be handled with care, moderation, and balance. This is the only way that we can be people who are both communicative and responsive. We need to identify the areas where an unhealthy relationship with information has enervated our action, engagement, and connection, whether by lack of communication, or by an excess of information leading to its breakdown. We also need to assess the ways in which our involvements online have shifted these relationships for good and ill. We need to think more rigorously about how to resist the dangers and temptations of the superfluous information on the Internet, while fully availing ourselves of the online information that is most valuable.
All of the above is especially important for the life and mission of the Church and the Christian. The Internet has the potential greatly to empower us. However, without developing healthy practices, skills, and virtues in relation to it, it will undermine us and blunt our work. A Church driven by constant data-gathering and by information addiction and pushing will both exhibit and encourage paralysis and paranoia. It will be a Church that is unable to make up its mind and take action. It will be a Church lacking determination and resolve. It will be a Church lacking vision and resolve, but driven by the latest faddish technique, business paradigm, or polling data.
I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this. To what extent do you share or disagree with the positions expressed above? What are some of the ways that the Internet has shaped your relationship with information? How have you managed to harness the potential of the Internet while minimizing its dangers?