On the Digital Age

It's not information overload, it's distraction overload

A few seconds.... touch of a button... most of the world's knowledge... Information overload... and so on . Does cliché always have an accent over the e? Let's turn to the web to find out...

No. Instead let me tell you a more personal story. A story that perfectly illustrates the pros and cons of using the web as an encyclopaedia.

The web is such a fabulous resource for facts and figures that naturally it has to be banned during any game of Trivial Pursuit (for younger readers, that's an old-fashioned quiz game played on a board. You can look it up... on the web). It struck me, as I was doing my research, that the internet makes the entire concept of a quiz game rather pointless. The answers are all out there on the web, so holding them in human memory is more trivial than ever before. So I wondered if the sales of the board game had plummeted as a direct result of internet popularity. I entered Trivial Pursuit Sales in Google and immediately found that one of its inventors, Chris Haney, had died in 2010, of kidney failure. That's an interesting story and indeed he was an interesting guy, a bit of a maverick, a school drop-out who devoted a lot of time to developing the game and had a difficult stage when early sales were poor. The first five web pages I looked at gave pretty much identical accounts of his life, using different words. They were mainly newspaper obituaries, plus Wikipedia. It took me about ten sites before I found a more detailed article (theglobeandmail.com) that explained why he'd died of kidney failure, which I can paraphrase as – the man was more of a party animal than a health freak.

That was ten minutes gone and actually I hadn't found out anything about Trivial Pursuit sales, post-internet. Another ten minutes of quite difficult searching gave me some sales figures for 2001 and 2004 and finally a 2013 company report for Hasbro, owner of the game, and the game barely got a mention relative to its other products. That pretty much answered my sales question, though only by inference. I could have carried on but I could see the actual numbers were going to take a very long time to find, and in any case I wasn't going to discover whether we were simply looking at an old product (starting 1981) at the end of its lifecycle, or whether the internet had specifically done the damage, and whether that damage was from a general move in the direction of screen games or a move away from quiz games. That last question I could have researched separately, but by now I'd spent enough time on the subject and had better things to do – World Cup soccer was on TV.

And what are the multiple morals of the story?

  1. It's extremely easy to get distracted
  2. Most of the information channels are corporate, with similar content
  3. Not every fact and figure is out there, some are very hard or impossible to find
  4. Explanations and proper analysis are even harder to find
  5. A search can lead into a swamp, where there are lots of options and your starting direction begins to look invalid.

Let's not forget that this twenty minute search would have been impossible before the web – maybe possible for a professional researcher with a phone and a few hours to spare, but out of reach of any amateur. Although the results weren't great, they were passable. Also I'd happily stumbled across the story of an interesting human being.

One of the myths of the internet is information overload. This is quite wrong. The real problem is distraction overload. There isn't too much information, but there is too much distraction.

And one of the reasons why there isn't an information overload is that we're channelled. We're not sailing an open ocean, we're in a shipping lane. The main channelling influence is the search engine, which is corporate. The second channelling influence is resources, which are corporate – I finished up looking at a lot of newspaper sites because they're big, well-funded, and effective. On this particular search I never once arrived at the site of an individual, a privateer. That's slightly unusual but it does happen.

The channelling influences are very useful because they stop us getting lost in open water. A web without search engines would be a hopeless expanse of sea. But at the same time these channelling influences are extremely, um, influential. Unless we go very deep into the web we always get to see corporate material recommended by other corporations. This wasn't how the web started out, but it's how it's finished up. On the positive side that means we get to the low hanging fruit very quickly, but on the negative side we're steered away from anything non-conformist. Plus ca change. That's pretty much how life was before the web.

There's also the issue of what kind of information is available on the web. Howard Gardner, author (with Katie Davis) of The App Generation, when contemplating the idea of a smartphone capable of answering all questions, said, "Yes, the answers to all questions... except the important ones." It will be a long time before a smartphone can advise us on matters of love, mortality, faith, and mystery. The more personal and important a question is, the less chance there is that we can simply look up the answer.

Meanwhile, the answers to most straightforward questions are already out there. But don't be surprised if you finish up on the scenic route.


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