Bookmarked No End to Content Overload by Amit Gawande

Amit Gawande’s struggle is very recognisable, also after ditching most if not all passive consumption. There’s always more content, and its creation outpaces your intake by many orders of magnitude. In the ’00s I blogged quite a bit about information strategy, one where abundance of information is a given. Most of the information strategies and tactics I learned earlier were based on information scarcity, or at least on a scarcity of access to abundant information. That’s when I assumed information and content abundance, and that my agency lies in starting from my information needs. My agency turns overload into abundance, a switch created by a change in assumed locus of control.

When we say “I cannot keep up!“, what does ‘keeping up’ mean really? At some point I realised it was mostly an outside perspective and projection by others that I internalised. From a time where most information thrown at me was chosen by others (school e.g.). That perhaps instilled the notion that the value of information is determined by the sender. In abundance the value is in the attention I pay to selection and to the hunt for the types of surprisal I want to encounter. For many years now I’ve been practicing (and regularly failing to different extends) an inside-out perspective where my current interests and tasks determine what’s worthwile to take in.

There I see my network of peers as a large scale antenna and a filter that work because of distributed conversations taking place between us. They share with me, I share stuff with them, the feedback loops lift signals above the noise. I’ve learned to trust that if it’s important to me it will surface again, because of those feedback loops. At the very least it made me unafraid to click ‘mark all items read’ daily in applications, and treat my never diminishing unread stacks of books as an anti-library available to explore when I have an actual interest to pursue. Keeping up in such a perspective is ‘easy’, as it is my own speed that I need to keep up with and not the global firehose of everything produced under the sun. There’s no need to see it ‘all’, just enough. It keeps being a struggle though, with all media trying to keep pushing everyone’s ‘pay attention to me’ buttons.

Maybe, I need to make peace with the fact that I cannot keep up. I cannot keep up with the growing list of brilliant books. I cannot keep up with the gifted writers churning beautiful essays. And, with a heavy heart, accept that I am okay with it.

Disengaging from passive consumption has helped me. But there’s too much good content that I can’t keep up with.

Amit Gawande

Earl Mardle is often a good source for interesting stories, that build on pattern recognition from his Networked World. Today I read his article Connecting the Dots in which he brings together three observations of information strategies as used in Washington.

First he notices that staffers from Capitol Hill tried to insert spin into Wikipedia pages resulting in them being banned from editing Wikipedia.
Second he talks about the stealthy and somewhat strange reclassification of earlier declassified and often published archive material as secret. Including material that to my eyes seems utterly irrelevant.
Third he shares the response of the American administration to losing the public opinion in Iraq: taking time to create a strategic communications framework. That to me smells like a time consuming and centralised broadcasting based effort, which is quite the opposite of what they’re up against.
All three stories speak of how those involved are very much stuck in information strategies that become increasingly ineffective.

Broadcasting, big on info scarceness (photo by Mike Dunn)

In days past information about the world beyond our direct observation was scarce and reached us through a small set of channels. Information sources could then be seen as discrete signals, beacons in our surrounding world. All three examples speak of this view on information. The first is about trying to control a channel, the second of taking a channel away, and the third about building your own exclusive channel in response to somebody else. Information in all three instances is treated as if consisting of neutral or objective packets of info, without its context, that can be pushed around, and altered accordingly.

Nowadays however information surrounds us in such abundance that we find ourselves in a new landscape as it were, in which we have to navigate. In such a landscape an individual piece of information isn’t the significant unit, but the context from which it stems and the patterns it helps form or stands out from become the meaningful entities. To navigate in an information landscape takes different strategies compared to dealing with a small number of information broadcasters or beacons in your surroundings. If you don’t adapt your strategies to the new information landscape reality you’re starting to look increasingly clumsy.

Kuwait Stock Exchange: Information Abundance Surrounding Us. (Photo by miskan)

The examples above have this aura of clumsiness, because those involved don’t seem to notice that their actions are the information now, not the information they are acting upon. The changes to Wikipedia don’t result in the desired changes to pages, but instead create a pattern of strange changes from Washingtonian IP addresses in the history of each page. Those on the lookout for patterns, not singular info pieces, trigger on this, and as a result just start looking more intensely at that which you wished to take out of the equation.

The same goes for reclassifying previously declassified info. Such as an old newsclipping from a Yugoslavian newspaper on China’s nuclear ambitions, or the fact that the CIA botched their prediction about whether China would get involved in Korea in the 1950’s. Suddenly the question why this needs to be reclassified becomes the relevant unit of meaning, the pattern that draws attention. The singular pieces alone would not have drawn any attention. If it is out there without context it will be generally viewed as irrelevant. The fact that somebody cares about these pieces of information enough to make them secret again adds new context however and solely that new context makes the information suddenly noteworthy again.

Another thing that adds to this impression of clumsiness (not specifically tied to these examples) is when people or administrations are starting to adhere more strongly to their failing strategies when they notice their strategies are beginning to fail. That is clutching at straws. Fortifying yourself inside your old strategy immobilizes you. Forts are prisons with the key on the inside. Adapting to changing surroundings needs mobility. Immobility kills. Keeping still for a while can be useful at times and is normal human behaviour but only if it is a short pause in your movements.

When a thunderstorm moves in and the rain starts, people caught outside on the streets usually seek shelter from the rain, hoping that the rain will soon pass. When the rains stays a bit longer though people change their behaviour. Now the rain is a given, and they use differences in the intensity from the downpour to run to the next shelter. Or they decide that becoming wet isn’t so bad after all, compared to having to wait indeterminately. Those that kept waiting until the rain stopped may think they chose the right strategy because they’re still dry, but that has become irrelevant to those that left earlier. Those are off busy doing other things. Things you are no longer part of.

Thunderstorm moving in. Photo by me. July 17th 2004.