The age of abundance was once viewed as something to embrace. With information no longer being restricted to the elites, we as individuals would have access to more news, perspectives, opportunities and ways of connection than at any other point in human history. Yet, the growing popularity of terms such as “information overload” and “post-truth politics” highlight the growing necessity of cultivating the skill of managing our attention online.
It would be silly to dismiss just how beneficial our information-rich digital world has been for us. The possibility of informing ourselves on everything and anything is there at the tap of a thumb. On the flip side, however, this abundance of information also provides ample opportunities for more indulgent pursuits; ranging from taking a peek at our friends’ highlight reels for the day, to discovering that another one of our teenage idols is a conspiracy theorist – the list is endless. Many may argue that the sheer quantity of choice is a symbol of freedom, and that the “junk information” that exists within it is just part of the deal. Those who complain can just turn off their screens — It’s just willpower, right?
This line of argument, however, too easily dismisses the fact that we are required to navigate ourselves through the junk, as the algorithms do not work in our favour. Even if it is a price to pay for the freedom of choice, there’s still a more important question: does an awareness of what seems to be an endless amount of choices, opportunities and sources of information really make us free, or is it not another form of tyranny? Is this not making it more difficult for us to decipher the useful from the useless?
We know the obvious issues. Unless we’re super selective with our search filters, a quick trip online can result in being spammed with jobs, personalised ads, viral videos and anything else that competes for our attention. We can get lost in it all, pushing our brains to the limits of what they are able to efficiently process. Not to mention the endless discoveries of what we are missing out on, such as finding out what exotic location our not-so-social-distanced friend has ended up in, whilst we stand still in the aisle at Tesco, waiting patiently for the elderly lady in front of us to decide what brand of tinned tuna she fancies. Granted, the vast amount of options for distraction is a useful way to kill the monotonous aspects of a food shop, however the problem lies with the lack of control over the exposure we have to it.
We know when we’re ingesting junk information, we know when we have moments of weakness, but we should not consider it a personal weakness when we find ourselves ingesting too much junk, given how much of it is engineered in a way that makes us crave more. Clickbait news that is focused on generating emotional responses, such as outrage, does so because outrage has an addictive quality to it, as much as we would hate to admit it, and this objective to trigger us emotionally works so well. It naturally becomes much easier and more appealing for us to ingest trending, concise 280-character opinions on Twitter than it is to reach out to more longform and “boring” content.
We’re vulnerable to it all and it is the conditioning effects it has on us that make it an even bigger problem. Easy access puts virtues, such as patience, to the back of the queue, which no doubt contributes to the tribalism and general nightmare that we see today on social media platforms. If the news is reactionary, it’s no wonder that we follow suit. Still, it is unsustainable. Ingesting junk information feels good, but after a while, we end up losing sight of what is important. In the thick of it all, our ability in being able to determine what information is actually good and useful seems to disappear.
If we collectively want to get better at limiting ourselves to “healthy” sources of information, perhaps we should move on from talking about willpower and start by accepting the fact that we will always be drawn to junk information, as we are with junk food. Instead of taking a sabbatical a la Ross Geller, perhaps we should focus on taking the time to cleanse our feeds and make them work for us. We owe it to ourselves to become ruthless, by seriously considering whether what we are paying attention to online is either necessary, or at least beneficial to us.
We can start small and mute our anti-masker Uncle’s posts on Facebook, eliminating that source of frustration, without having to worry about getting the death stare at Christmas dinner (whenever that is). We can block certain clickbait news sites that lack credibility, we can be brutal with our Instagram feed and assess what helps us and what (without intending to) drives that sense of inadequacy that most likely exists for no good reason. In the age of abundance, we’re always going to be missing out on something, so we might as well choose what that something is. It is not a sign of weakness that we have to remove the possibility of temptation in the first place.
If somebody who is on a diet has to witness their freezer tray being loaded up with ice cream on a daily basis, talk of willpower becomes pretty redundant when the option exists to just not have it there in the first place. In an information-rich world, with what appears to be an abundance of choices, opportunities and sources of information, just “doing more” and “learning more” won’t cut it anymore. With our brains only being able to efficiently process so much, information overload is becoming a growing problem. Perhaps our own digital freedom comes, ironically, by what we limit ourselves to. The algorithms do not work in our favour, and with the lack of control over what information we are exposed to, we should treat our attention as something that needs to be managed.
By David Rothwell
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