Infobesity: A digital data diet for the ages

“…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…”

Herbert A. Simon

Infobesity or information overload was a term coined by journalist John Naish. It refers to the overwhelming amount of information that we are bombarded with.

The New York Times estimates that we are exposed to upwards of 5000 advertisements per day every day of our lives. It saddens me that most toddlers can’t recognise a potato, but by age 3 they can easily recognise the golden arches of McDonald’s.

We feel compelled to leave our phones on 24 hours a day. An increasing number of people report that they are nervous or anxious if their mobile phone is turned off even for a few minutes (during a funeral, on a plane or in a movie).

I sometimes wonder why people bother going out to dinner with three friends when they prefer to spend the evening texting LOLs and WUWHs (wish you were here) to 200 other close personal acquaintances that they considered too unimportant to invite to dinner in the first place.

Worse still our phones are increasingly becoming handheld computers that keep us plugged into the internet and our email without relent. We instantly respond to the ping at speeds that would delight Skinner and Pavlov.

Television channels produce full day news bulletins covering breaking news, but after the initial incident (that may be newsworthy) the remaining day long coverage has little if any newsworthiness.  Yet we compulsively watch the endless live updates from the reporter at the scene who tells us that…’nothing has changed since the last update’ twenty minutes ago.

The internet has placed the entire knowledge of human history at our fingertips, but instead of going deep and learning new things we flit from a photo of a cat in a clown costume to a picture of the latest Lindsay Lohen fail. We are connected to thousands of acquaintances by the click of a button, yet our physical connectedness to real human beings dwindles year by year.

None of us would peak into the window of our neighbour, but we are all very comfortable peeping into the lives of strangers on Facebook- my workmates wife ate an orange at 8 am yesterday (FYI).

For all the interconnectedness young people still struggle to find comfortable conversations with their barber, or a neighbour they bump into at the market. This constant stream of living that passes across our screens has us watching life rather than living it.

The attention grabbing noise from our digitized lives is overwhelming. We are over tired, over stimulated and strangely given all the data we are exposed to in one day – extremely under informed about what matters in life.

I have decided to ignore the droplets of data. I will instead focus on rivers of wisdom. As part of my own less is best quest I biffed out my phone (no more monthly bill!), found the off button on the TV set and reviewed the level of intimacy I was having with my laptop. The benefits were immediate.

Since these changes the most noticeable improvement is that our house is quieter, calmer and more enjoyable to live in. I am now even more convinced that technology should serve me and not the other way around where I am constantly at its mercy responding to every blip.

There are several data diet experiments that you could trial for yourself. A trial is a nice non threatening step and doesn’t mean you are unplugging from the machine permanently. By taking a temporary break you allow yourself the opportunity to consciously appreciate the benefits.  Your data diet might be so beneficial that it becomes a permanent feature. An ongoing step towards digital healthfulness.

Data Diet Strategies

Strategy #1: Divide information between nice to know and need to know. Once you have established the division. Tune out of nice to know loops for one a full month.

Strategy #2: Unplug completely. Become a Luddite for at least two weeks. The best way to do this is to take a digital holiday the next time you take a physical holiday (e.g. don’t pack your PC, tablet, smartphone when you fly to Samoa). Don’t fret your life won’t fall apart. You can always tell people that your smart phone was in for repairs or the island had no signal.

Strategy #3: Tune out of the least two information channels for one month. Good places to start with would be to eliminate mindless websurfing at night, stop watching the TV news, or give your neighbour your newspaper subscription. Other ideas include turning off your mobile phone for the weekend or waiting one month to check your email.

Strategy #4: Use technology to slightly reduce your exposure. For instance set your device to download your email twice per day. Pre- programme TiVo or your DVD recorder to horde fewer shows. Set your phone to turn off automatically for periods of the day. This will seriously save your phone battery life.

You will never know the benefits until you try out a digital diet for yourself. This could lead to a longer digital holiday and who knows…perhaps a deep appreciation of the Luddite lifestyle. Having lived these experiments myself I know that a low data works better for me.

If I were to do some soothsaying – I suspect that in future we may see a growing number of young people rejecting pervasive digital technologies in favour of simpler more direct experience of their life. A life more akin to how our grandparents lived. Closer to nature, more resourceful and with a strong sense of place linking them to the communities that they lived in.

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