My Brain on Information

I’ve read two things recently that have made me think about and reconsider the role of information in our lives and particularly the way in which I consume and process it. We live in an information-dense era of human history. In the western world (and increasingly, the world in general) the tools to access, consume, produce and distribute vasts amounts of information are available to almost everyone at just a moments’ notice. In many ways, we are living in a Golden Age of Information. The problem is, this Golden Age first crept up on us stealthily and then rammed into us headlong at full speed. As a result I think most of us, even those considered “digital natives” (myself included), seem to be perpetually ill-equipped to deal with both the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly information-rich existence.

Last week I read Accelerando, a set of short stories by British science fiction author Charlie Stross. The stories start from the near future (almost the present) and extend to a distant post-Singularity future where humanity lives among the stars, but in the shadows of godlike intellects. Though the entire collection is worth reading (and available for free), the first few stories about a world not too different from our own were particularly interesting. At one point one of the main characters, a very intelligent serial entrepreneur (and “venture altruist”) name Manfred Macx claims to consume a megabyte of text and several gigabytes of multimedia a day just to keep current.

That’s a lot of information for any person to consume in a day – a megabyte is roughly half a million English words. Though this is science fiction, I think we’re quickly getting to the point where people who want to stay current with the pace of science and technology will be required to consume enormous amounts of information regularly. Half a million words a day may be too much for an unaugmented human (Macx has an array of cybernetic implants and software agents forming a “exocortex” for information processing) but I think tens of thousands of words a day will soon become par for the course. And that’s just text. I’m not including understanding diagrams, source code, operations manuals or even video or audio. If we’re supposed to be assimilating such huge quantities of information on a regular basis how are we supposed to make sense of it all?

That brings me to a piece on The Atlantic website dramatically titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“. It’s about how the use of search engines and similar fast information retrieval systems is supposedly rewiring our brains. While some parts of the piece are overly sentimental and melodramatic, the core point is sound: the tools we have access to and the way we use them plays a role in shaping the functionality of our brains. I also sympathize that a habit of continually sampling little bites of information can be deeply unsatisfying. It’s easy to get hooked on to a Facebook or Twitter stream but as you stay hooked you can feel your brainpower wither as you lose the ability to concentrate longer than 140 characters. When I get stuck on Hacker News or Reddit for hours I feel terrible by the end of the day. Though I love good stories and movies it’s easy to get hooked on Netflix, passively consuming information but not really doing anything. But I’d like to believe that we can train our brains to be not quite so helpless in the face of endless streams of juicy tidbits.

A growing body of research is showing that the human brain is an incredibly flexible organ. Neuroplasticity is the norm, not the exception. As the amount of information we need to process increases (and our tools to do so get better) our brains change to accomodate it all. That of course begs the question: how far can we push ourselves? Can we train our brains to not just flit from hyperlink to hyperlink but actually digest and understand large amounts of interconnected material with greater efficiency and accuracy? Can we ensure that Google makes us smarter and wiser, not stupider?

Though our reading habits (and by extension our general thought patterns) might be changing, the change is not accidental nor is it inevitable. Instead of bemoaning the loss of the slow reading habits of yesteryear I think we should be trying to embrace the information-dense world around us. In particular, we need to stop thinking of deep reading and skimming as antagonistic to each other. Perhaps what we need to do is not to read slower, but rather separate the physical act of reading from the mental act of comprehending what we have read. I would love to be able to read text fast, look up links and references and then let the mass of information “ferment” in my brain. I’d like to be able to train my brain to think of what I’ve read after I’m done looking at the text forming connection betweens concepts and ideas while I’m walking down the street or taking a shower.

Perhaps this is an exceedingly computer-science centric way of thinking about the brain and thought processes. To be honest, I’ve been writing code and processing data algorithmically far longer than I’ve been learning about how the brain works. I do tend to think of the brain primarily as an information processor. Unlike the author of The Atlantic article I’m not nearly as attached to the so-called “human” aspect of my intelligence (but that’s a matter for another blog post). I like settling down with a cup of coffee and a good book in a nice armchair as much as the next guy, but only on the weekends. During the week I’d like to come up with six impossible things before breakfast and figure out how to make them possible through the course of the day. To do that I need to keep the information machine fed, creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I’d love to know how to do that better.

2 thoughts on “My Brain on Information

  1. I’m very suspicious of this kind of thinking. In no particular order:

    It’s easy to notice the increase in areas of knowledge we access and assume that means we’re processing more information. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this came at considerable detriment to how we interact with our immediate surroundings.The photographic memory version of life where you scan information quickly and process it instead of paying attention to the world around you might mean you’ve pushed your knowledge to new frontiers faster, but everything in the middle – the everyday proceedings of our lives, interactions with people and the real physical world we live in, and exploration of what it means to be human – all those things get overshadowed by a quest for “knowledge”.
    I also find that a lot of the knowledge I consume on internet binges is not particularly important or relevant to my life, will not help me contribute to a better world. It’s a sort of addiction – “I’ll follow that link because it looks interesting and I need to know everything that’s interesting”. And there’s always a temporary satisfaction that dwindles into a kind of emptiness that wants more. Not everything that is interesting is worth the time I spend learning it.
    You talk about how creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum and is stimulated by information. That’s fairly valid. But if anyone is parsing tens of kilobytes of text a day, most of it will have very little impact on their life and work. Learning peripheral things is not all bad – sometimes you need to think about something else, and other times it’s genuinely stimulating to learn about how people have thought about unrelated problems. But it’s a minority of that knowledge that has an impact. And if you really want to do high-quality work, the main input you need is feedback from the work itself. You need to really be paying attention to how it feels to use it, whether it fulfils its purpose, how to use the particularity of your medium to make your job easier. Heck, craftsmen from the 13th century made things that are still functional and beautiful now by paying attention to what they were doing – not by sitting on their couch gathering random knowledge.
    Also if you’re doing your own thinking, it doesn’t take a kilobyte of input before you start having your own creative ideas. But with the internet there are so many sources of input and hyperlinks to follow that it’s so easy to stop thinking for yourself and just follow to the next place you know there will be something interesting. It feels like thinking because you’re trying to understand as fast as possible, but it’s guided by the data-stream.

  2. The Internet is just an extension of TV sometimes, rather than a contributor to flow.
    I guess developing tools that funnel the Internet into chunks of coherent information will be neccessary for our sanity in the future.

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