Sunday, March 6, 2011

Information overload

Newsweek's March 2 cover was dire indeed: A person whose head was encased in ice. The headline shouted: "Brain Freeze." The subhead: "How the deluge of information paralyzes our ability make good decisions."

The article - by Sharon Begley, one of the country's better science reporters - said that today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinions never stops. And trying to drink from that firehose of information has hamful cognitive effects. We weren't evolved to handle such a rush, and it shows in many ways. For instance, we tend to latch on to the latest news from among the mad rush of data, whether or not it is important. The brain's working memory can only hold so much.

This is a big deal. Begley is a big deal. Making good decisions is a big deal. So why am I grinning?

It probably dates back to an ancient newscase by Tom Brokaw in which he wrapped up a story about a new thing called a "cell phone" with a look at the camera that said, unmistakably, "Who the hell would want to carry a phone around in his pocket?" I remember that look well, because I was wearing it, too.

I've never had a cell phone, smart or otherwise. Apps don't seem to connect with my landline phone. Twitter? Facebook? Huh?

Maybe I'm just being an out-of-step snot. But it turns out I've known for years about information overload. As a writer of short-form text - newspaper editorials and now a blog - I know well the evils of too much data. Every topic groans with different aspects, political slants, trainloads of dross impossible to stuff into a short comment. The solution is what I think of as a clank. Based on what you know about the topic - rather a lot, one hopes - decide what you want to write. Then, clank!, down comes the door on everything else. Wait! There's breaking news! Clank.

And then, when you've written enough, you stop.

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