The notion of “information diets” and corresponding metaphors, like fasting, dieting, binging, etc., have been around for a while. And for a while I subscribed to them. I took steps to monitor and control my information consumption. I resisted the pull of social media until after I’d done some actual reading and writing. All in all, I allocated a pair of devil’s horns to anything that threatened to upset my precisely optimised info-diet.
No more. Just this morning, I woke up, dossed around, scrolled through my feeds, did some reading, did some writing, and then began typing this. My information diet has gone utterly awry and an encounter on Twitter a few days ago (re-)revealed to me exactly why.
First: someone posted about the supposed profoundity of the term “information obesity”. My response was to think (and then reply) that it is our filtering mechanisms, not information itself, that are the problem. A quick query reveals that while we can’t pinpoint the precise rate of human sensory information throughput, it’s undoubtedly what one would call a “fuck-ton”. Yet we manage to handle it without keeling over and/or going insane. I get that social media is engineered to be addictive to the human mind, but do you really think that our brain can’t handle social media and is so easily hijacked? No way. It doesn’t matter whether the environment is made of bits or atoms: we adapt and move on.
(Aside: the “information diet” metaphor is even more fallacious when you consider that the mind has a vastly greater capacity than the body to adapt to chronic stresses. The body degrades in the short-term and the long-term if chronically overfed. The mind, in contrast, suffers in the short-term while it evolves sustainable fixes to the new state of affairs.)
Second (and more importantly): whether or not our new informational environment is toxic is a moot point because it is not going away. Barring episodes of local and global civilisational collapse, the amount of information we are exposed to and the rate at which it reaches us is only going to increase.
Recognising this and taking the stance of technological-pastoralists (attempting to rewind the clock) is a laughable response that is doomed to fail. Digital waldenponding in an attempt to deny the new situation won’t work either. Not only does it reduce exposure, and thus inhibit the rate of adaptation, to the new info environment, extended periods of waldenponding multiply dissonance because the world waldenponders return to is more complex and overwhelming than the one they ran from in the first place. This itself can create a feedback loop in which one becomes increasingly more estranged from their evolving environment.
So if we can’t rewind the clock, nor deny and/or slow the changes taking place, what can we do? What options are there? There are two: detached engagement or immersive engagement. Detached engagment is akin to Tiago Forte’s second-braining. It’s the deliberate creation of interfaces that act as mediators between the information and you. It’s a mimicking of natural evolutionary mechanisms. Immersive engagement, on the other hand, is akin to gonzo journalism. Think Hunter S. Thompson having sex, doing drugs and rock-n-rolling in order to report on sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, or modern counterparts like Ioan Grillo and Roberto Saviano sharing stories of drug cartels and the Mafia which they got from the killers and traffickers themselves.
Personally, I’ve written off detached engagement. I don’t have the patience to undertake the necessary infrastructure building or the will to battle instincts that directly conflict with second-brain practices. Which leaves me with immersive engagement. In other words, I’m going gonzo. More information, more online, more interaction, and accompanying it, more disorientation. That’s okay, though. Being perpetually off-balance is the new normal.