The Problem with Digital Culture [2] : Information Obesity

I posted some thoughts on Friday about the problem of information coming too quickly for us to reflectively process it – and turn information into useful knowledge and wisdom. The analogy I used there was of a conveyor belt. When it runs slowly the packets come off at a speed that allows us to sort them, whatever our taxonomy may be. But when things are speeded up we get more stuff – which in a consumer world always seems good – but get so much so fast that we have no idea how to usefully use it.

I want to consider another perspective which I think may be useful here: our growing digital obesity.

Obesity is an energy balance problem: more food energy is consumed than is required given the activities we are involved in. Our inactivity and continued bloating becomes self-reinforcing: consumption becomes comforting, and energy use uncomfortable.

It seems that with the consumer-capitalist West’s problem of expanding waistlines comes a parallel problem: information obesity. We consume far more information than we can usefully make use of. Our data feeds (yes, isn’t that interesting usage that’s cropped up?) are always on, and always offering more. And the more information that comes in, the less we feel like actually making good use of it. The cycle becomes self-reinforcing.

We are simultaneously becoming the most well-informed and slothful generation ever. Knowing everything, and doing very little. Our bodies crammed so full of fresh information that we are unable to move.

The question I posed in the last post was this: how do we throttle the flows we have available, and carve out time for reflection? The solution is proposed was to give more time to sleep: that period when our brains are not receiving new information, but given time to post-process and connect up the data it has been fed.

How does this apply to information obesity? Well, it seems that sensible diet and regular exercise are key. What are you really going to lose if you limit the information you consume each day? Perhaps a dietary purge of your feeds, your follows, those Facebook ‘friends’ that you don’t know from Adam, would help. But that won’t be enough. We need action too. We need to exercise, to take the food we have been given and do something good with it. Scribble, protest, draw, think, campaign, walk, run… Because if we don’t, all of these creamy, sweet information is going to clog us up and lead our hearts to arrest.

We’ll be covering some of this at Apple 8 – Social Networks and Social Action this Weds, 13th. And looking at Information Obesity in particular at Apple 9 on November 17th.


3 responses to “The Problem with Digital Culture [2] : Information Obesity”

  1. steve collins

    i agree, but my reading this via facebook at 12.15am is a prime example of what you’re talking about.

  2. Part of the solution for me has become what Clay Shirky calls the Algoritmic Authority. I use tools like, that in this case go through all the links that the people I follow on Twitter have posted and sorts them by the number of times they have been mentioned and then presents them in a sorted and clean way to me. This helps me a great deal to focus my attention. I also love Instapaper which lets me save articles for reading them later, for example on my iPad on the train while I have more time to really digest them.
    I think, we currently in a phase were most of us are arriving at the same conclusion that you’ve described above and the smart geeks among us are starting to develop solutions for that.