How Much Information Can I Process?

Like that old phrase, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” I tend to put too many words on my plate to read each day.  The saying, “My eyes are bigger than my brain” doesn’t seem to say what I mean, so I’m looking for a pithy saying to express various flavors of information overload.  Obviously we’re all taking in more megabytes of data than our brains were designed to handle.

If I went on an information diet, how much is a reasonable amount of data to take in each day?

Like most people in 2012, I suffer from information overload, but unlike many people I know, I’m trying to do something about it.  Cancelling cable TV really helped.  Reducing my channel choices from over 200 down to 5 feels great.  My wife works out of town and when she comes home on the weekend she gets pissed off that I hate to add a 6th channel to the clicker – her favorite.  She doesn’t understand how much it pains me to flip through 6 channels.  To show my wife how much I love her, I added her channel to the clicker, but I don’t think she appreciates the sacrifice I’m making.  She just thinks I’m a TV wimp. 

(“You watch more than you can see” – not bad phrase, almost mystical, and philosophical, but too Chauncey Gardner.)

I’ve cancelled the newspaper and all my print magazines years ago.  I bought a Kindle and iPad to help manage information, but I haven’t gotten them under control yet.  Because of the novelty of the gadgets, and Amazon’s low monthly pricing, I quickly subscribed to several magazines.  I’ve been cutting back on those too.  I still hope to regularly read The New Yorker, National Geographic, The Rolling Stone, Discover and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, although I fail miserably to keep up with all these magazines.  I never did in the decades of subscribing to the paper editions, so I don’t know why I think it will be different on the iPad.  At least I don’t see the mags grow in large piles around the room.

(“Your data intake exceeds its processing time” – not very catchy.  “I take in more data than I can shit out” – rather gross, but does imply I’m bloated with data.  I’m factulent!)

Just now I was trying to catch up on The Magazines of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and discovered they are filled with novellas.  I don’t have time for novellas, or even novelettes.  So I switched to the book review sections, and quickly found two great sounding books I want to read, The Future of Us by Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler, about two friends in 1996 discovering their Facebook pages from 15 years in the future, and A Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson, about a guy who gets to time travel back to 1962 Greenwich Village.  I had to add both to my Wish List. 

(“You’ll need nine lifetimes to read all those books” – not too bad, but not accurate either.  I’d need ninety lifetimes.  “If you can’t handle 200 channels of TV, how can you handle 200 unread books?”)

It sure would be pleasant if I only had 5 books laying around waiting to be read.  You have any idea what it feels like having a to-be-read pile 700 books high?  Why do I keep buying books?  I’m insane.  And the highlight of this week is the annual library book sale. 

(“I’m a glutton for words.”  “I’m a bookaholic.”  “I need to go on a data diet.”  “I’m obese from eating too many words.”)

I feel I’ve gotten TV under control, now I need to get my books and magazine reading roped in and tied down.  I think part of the problem is we all feel we must keep up with what’s going on around the world, whether it’s news, pop culture, music, literature or even TV celebrities.  We don’t like other people to think we’re living under a rock.  But is it vital that I keep up with European politics and economics, with South American mining, with Chinese manufacturing, with Russian crime, and so on?

Do I help the world in any way by watching all the sparrows?  Aren’t we using the internet, smart phones, and cable  TV news in an attempt to be omnipresent?  Of course, I’m assuming my addiction to information is common, and that may not be true.  Most people might eat a healthy diet of data and never feel full with information overload.

I feel if I quit trying to read everything I’m going to miss something, something important.  Like I’ll be a work and people will laugh at me because I didn’t know about Africa sinking below the ocean or when the aliens from space landed in Tibet.

Sometimes I think I shouldn’t worry about news at all.  I’ve had a fantasy about writing a novel, and just forgetting what goes on in the real work, and only concentrate on creating my fictional world.  But it’s so weird to think about shrinking my world to the size of house and office, and what I see from my truck and bicycle. 

That would be like living in some 19th century novel.  That would be bad, right?

JWH – 5/6/12

5 thoughts on “How Much Information Can I Process?”

  1. There is a program that has trickled down (a year or two ago you had to pay a monthly free) to the active stock trader.. There is of course too much info coming at you. So this program simply turns this info into colors, that looks like a quilt. By looking at colors instead of charts and numbers you get an idea where to focus your attention…People were trading numbers why not colors!

    1. That would be cool if news stories were color coded by the amount of attention they were getting, sort of like a heat index map. Actually, there are all kinds of graphical interpretation of news popularity. I should check into that.

  2. “I’m bloated with data. I’m factulent!” I laughed out loud at this line.

    I also liked the parts about not having the time to pay attention to the news of the world and yet not wanting to seem like you’re an idiot cause you don’t know what’s going on in the world. I for one don’t have a lot of time to follow the news of the world. Space aliens could land in Tibet and I’d only read about it if I saw the headline on Yahoo on my way to our message board.

    I also liked the bit about the Library sale being the highlight of your week. Carol and I were walking through a nice neighborhood and saw that the library is having a sale in a few weeks. I said, “I’m gonna be there when it opens cause this is a rich area.” And she reminded me that we have a wedding to go to the night before about an hour and a half away and we’ve already got a hotel. “We’ll have to leave the hotel at 6 am to get here that early,” she said.

    But, the thing is, a part of me wants to do just that.

  3. I agree with you. I cancelled my Reuters Kindle subscription plus reduced the news sources i get through calibre after reading your post.

    Especially with regards to keeping up with current events. It’s never ending and time consuming while the reward is questionable. Like you said i mostly do it so that i can join the discussions around me whenever a conversation comes up. But these conversations are rarely in depth and are of the coffeeshop nature. Just passing the time. Need to be more selective with what i read.

    Currently subscribed to:

    1. FT – daily
    2. Guardian – daily (for the sports)
    3. The Atlantic (monthly)
    4. The Economist (weekly)
    5. Edge (monthly, videogames magazine)
    6. Spielbox (monthly, boardgames magazine)

    Plus all my RSS feeds and other articles i get from twitter, facebook and instapaper.

    It’s impossible to keep up.

    And then there are the books, movies, tv shows and sports…….

  4. I admire you for trying to cut down the input! I don’t remember 99% of what goes into my brain, which is kinda useful. Sometimes I wonder, what is the point of knowing things? Especially SOME things – like current affairs. The main reason I want to know about it is so I don’t sound dumb when other people say ‘so what are YOU going to do now Pakistan’s bombed New York.”

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