How to Cope with Information Overload

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tags: philosophy, Walter G. Moss, Big Data, future shock, information overload


Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. For a list of his recent books and online publications, including some on Dorothy Day, click here. His most recent book is "An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces" (Anthem Press, 2008).

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In the 1840s, in his Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote:

A man .... steps out into the world’s multiplicity, like one that comes from the country into the great noisy city, into the multiplicity where men engrossed in affairs hurry past one another, where each looks out for what belongs to him in the vast "back and forth," where everything is in passing ... For here one can experience everything possible, or that everything is possible. ... So this man stands there. He has in himself a susceptibility for the disease of double-mindedness. ... Swiftly, alas, swiftly he is infected -- one more victim. This is nothing new, but an old story. As it has happened to him, so it has happened with the double-minded ones who have gone before him.

Reading these sentences led me to reflect on our current double-mindedness, for example among women who want to rise to the top of their professions and still be great mothers (see here and here for more on this). More broadly, Kierkegaard’s words (and more to follow) seem pertinent to the whole problem of making choices in today’s world, a world in which more of them than ever are available.

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Think about it: when before in history have people had so many options about how to spend their time? Granted, our jobs (if we have one) determine much of what we do for maybe forty hours a week, and there are other demands such as those regarding couples, friends, and family life. But there are choices to be made even within these areas. I’ll cite just two examples. Regarding jobs, I recently reviewed a book called Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. It provides numerous examples of how to make good everyday choices in our jobs, whether as doctors, lawyers, teachers, businesspersons, or janitors. Regarding couples, I’ve just seen the film Take This Waltz, in which Michelle Williams plays a woman who spends more than half the movie torn between loyalty to her loving husband and her attraction for another man. Which to choose? But the main options I am concerned with here, have to do with all our “free” time. What do we do, for example, in the evenings after work and on weekends?

We have more TV channels and material on the Internet than ever, and more gadgets like computers and smartphones on which we can do all sorts of things. Which channel do I watch? What do I record? What should I do on my computer or smartphone? Check my email, text a friend, go on Facebook, play a game, look at images from some of the world’s great art museums, shop on eBay or some other online shopping site, or check out the latest baseball scores? Or do I leave all my media gadgets at home and go to the gym or for a walk in the woods?

For most of us, the odds are that we do not abandon, even for a short time, all of our gadgets. One source estimated that “the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009” and TV watching also increased. In addition, by 2011 the average American teenager was sending about 75 text messages per day.

One reason for all our options is that more materials of all sorts -- data, images, entertainment (including sports) -- are now available than ever before, and the tools that provide them keep expanding. A 2012 New York Times essay, “The Age of Big Data,” cited research indicating that data was “more than doubling every two years.” Columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day, I’d say it is data-ism.”

In addition to all the expanded access to other data, the average person in the USA is constantly being bombarded by ads. So ubiquitous have they become (on TV, the Internet, and elsewhere) that many of us naively believe we just ignore them all. But if this is so, companies like those who spent about $3.8 million for a 30-second ad during the 2013 Super Bowl were foolish, which The Wall Street Journal insists they were not. So, in addition to all our other choices, we have to decide what to buy -- not an insignificant choice to all the retailers, online and otherwise, and Mad Men of this world.

One way of dealing with all our choices is to multitask, which is sometimes a “double-minded” attempt to “have it both ways.” We do it and see it all the time: talking on our phones while watching our little children; listening to a podcast while out walking; texting while driving; using our computer or smartphone to check our emails, Twitter feed, or Facebook wall while at a meeting, watching TV, or lunching with someone.

But multitasking has its own problems as studies of texting while driving have emphasized. The latest device to help us multitask is Google Glass -- “glasses” containing a “computer processor, a battery and a tiny screen.” One of the main questions about it is how much it might distract us from driving or other activities. One New York Times article (“Is Google Glass Dangerous?”) declares: “Glass may inadvertently disrupt a crucial cognitive capacity, with potentially dangerous consequences. ... Google Glass may allow users to do amazing things, but it does not abolish the limits on the human ability to pay attention.”

There is much evidence that the broadening of choices has led to more uncertainty, stress, and anxiety. John Kenneth Galbraith's 1977 phrase, The Age of Uncertainty, has often been used to describe our modern world. Even earlier, in 1970, Alan Toffler’s Future Shock referred to “information overload” and the stress, “increasing malaise,” and disorientation that people were already experiencing as a result of it and other technological changes. At the end of his section on such “overload” he concluded, “What consequences this may have for mental health in the techno-societies has yet to be determined.” But he predicted that for the remainder of the twentieth century, many people in such societies would “find it increasingly painful to keep up” with change. And that was written before the personal computer and Internet revolution proliferated information and images like never before.

Wisdom as an Ordering Principle

Kierkegaard’s way of dealing with the “world’s multiplicity” -- little as it was as compared to today -- was indicated in the title Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. He began this work with the following words, which he repeated at the end of this almost-hundred-page work:

Father in heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! ... So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. ... Each day, and day after day something is being placed in between: delay, blockage, interruption, delusion, corruption.

For those unwilling to make the “leap of faith” toward the “Father in Heaven,” Kierkegaard still has insights for all, unbelievers and doubters as well as believers. He asks for “wisdom to comprehend the one thing,” by which he means the Good or the “eternal order.” And the seeking of wisdom is a quest that stretches from pre-Christian times into the modern era.

Before Jesus Christ, it was sought by Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle -- the authors of Practical Wisdom, mentioned above, rely heavily on Aristotle’s description of such wisdom -- and in the “Wisdom books” of the Jewish Bible (Christian Old Testament). In the Book of Proverbs, for example, we read that wisdom “is the principal thing” and that it is “better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared with it.” Another source tells us that “wisdom was a virtue highly and consistently prized in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.” With the coming of the Enlightenment and the enthronement of science regard for wisdom declined, but some leading thinkers of their time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) to name just two, continued to value it highly -- in 1824, the young Emerson wrote in his journal about books that “embody the wisdom of their times” and appear only “once in two or three centuries perhaps.” He then added, “I should like to add another volume to this valuable work.”

Both men were broad thinkers with an appreciation of nature that some regarded as almost pantheistic. Although believing in some sort of God, they were more appreciative of a wider variety of approaches to Divine being and wisdom than the more narrowly focused and intense Protestant Kierkegaard. His thinking on wisdom resembles more that of St. Paul, who distinguished between Divine and worldly wisdom.

For our purposes, however, what is important is not so much whether wisdom is a Christian wisdom or some other kind, but simply the possibility of some type of wisdom acting as an organizing or ordering principle in our lives. Can it be (in the words of Proverbs), “the principle thing” to seek?

In his Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Harold Bloom, one of America’s leading literary critics, wrote that “Christians who believe, Muslims who submit, Jews who trust -- all in or to God’s will -- have their own criteria for wisdom, yet each needs to realize those norms individually if the words of God are to enlighten or comfort. Secularists take on a different kind of responsibility, and their turn to wisdom literature sometimes is considerably more wistful or anguished, depending on temperament.” In The Good Book: A Humanist Bible A. G. Grayling, whose latest book is The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism, attempts to follow “in the paths of the wise,” by providing a book of the “distillations of the wisdom and experience of mankind.”

This realization of the need for wisdom is not new. In the 1930’s the poet T. S. Eliot wrote lines that resonate more than ever in our age of big data.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

During that same decade Dutch historian Jan Huizinga wrote about the tremendous scientific and technological progress of the early twentieth century, and commented that “the masses are fed with a hitherto undreamt-of quantity of knowledge of all sorts.” But he added that there was “something wrong with its assimilation,” and that “undigested knowledge hampers judgment and stands in the way of wisdom.”

In his 1977 book, A Guide for the Perplexed, economist and environmentalist E.F. Schumacher, in words today more pertinent than ever, describes an all-too-familiar condition of modern humans: “Not only are they utterly helpless when they are born and remain so for a long time; even when fully grown, they do not move and act with the sure-footedness of animals. They hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want but above all of what they want.” In this book he lamented that “the traditional wisdom of all peoples in all parts of the world ... [has] become virtually incomprehensible to modern man.”

In the epilogue of an earlier work, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Schumacher wrote: “Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each one of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.”

In 2011 another author, Pico Iyer, sounded much like Schumacher in a New York Times opinion piece: “So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.”

Iyer follows this up by saying, “Maybe that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age.”

But Schumacher’s treatment of wisdom is much deeper and not specifically linked to age. In A Guide for the Perplexed he writes that “perhaps someone says: ‘For happiness you need wisdom’ but what is wisdom?” The Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed., 1989) defines wisdom as “the capacity for judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice of means and ends.” Schumacher would not have disagreed, but realized that wisdom also implies having good values such as love, compassion, empathy, tolerance, and respect for truth, goodness, and beauty, as well as the ability to prioritize these values wisely. He also was aware that wisdom involves acting and feeling as well as thinking.

In his earlier Small Is Beautiful he made the case for wisdom as being the necessary ordering principle, the sun whose rays should penetrate and enlighten all aspects of an individual’s life. And he added: “The exclusion of wisdom from economics, science, and technology was something which we could perhaps get away with for a little while, as long as we were relatively unsuccessful; but now that we have become very successful, the problem of spiritual and moral truth moves into the central position”(see here for more on Schumacher and wisdom).

By the time his two major books were published in the 1970s, Schumacher had become a Catholic, but retained a great respect for all traditional wisdom. For many centuries before him religion has been such an ordering or guiding principle for many people. As the song “The Bible Tells Me So” states:

Have faith, hope and charity 
That's the way to live successfully 
How do I know, the Bible tells me so. 

Many still seek their guidance and wisdom from the Bible. But in our more secular age even some of our deeply religious thinkers like the monk Thomas Merton realized that much wisdom is to be found in other sources (e.g. in Zen Buddhism and the writings of Faulkner) and that, to quote the poet W. H. Auden, “truths arrived at in different fields cannot ultimately conflict” (see here for more on Merton and wisdom).

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The thinkers mentioned in this essay seem to suggest that amidst the “information overload” of our cluttered world, with all its choices and anxieties, wisdom can act as an ordering principle.

Kierkegaard talked of coming “into the great noisy city, into the multiplicity where men engrossed in affairs hurry past one another” and feeling perplexed. More recently Iyer writes about our lacking an Instruction Manual to deal with information overload. Schumacher provides A Guide for the Perplexed urging us to develop our own wisdom and use it to guide us through life’s clutter and difficult choices. Bloom suggests that each person’s wisdom has to be unique.

Granted, the individual wisdom we compile, a self-made guide in a sense, will be no magic cure-all happiness-maker that can immediately transform our anxious lives. It will provide a process manual rather than any simple rules to follow. It will exist in each person’s head and heart, not on paper or a smartphone. No one is completely wise, and obtaining more wisdom and acting more wisely requires constant effort. Wisdom involves not only having good values but prioritizing them well and exercising self-discipline. Schumacher thought, for example, that it necessitated purifying oneself from evils like greed and envy. Furthermore, our individualized wisdom has to be constantly revised as we learn from our reading, thinking, and life experiences, including our mistakes. And there is no guarantee that we still might not construct a false “wisdom” that is really unwise. But developing our own wisdom principles and guidelines, however imperfect, and seeking, really seeking, to think, feel, and act wisely is at least a starting point.

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