Maximum Daily Dose of Information

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 27, 2015

Is it possible to overdose on news? We know we’re ruining our bodies by eating too much food; should we worry about overstuffing our minds? Is the internet the equivalent of mental junk food? The FDA keeps warning us we’re taking too many drugs as they learn about long-term toxicity. Modern society seems all about excess of everything. What if everything we consume, either physically or mentally, has a maximum safe dose?

By nature I’m an information junky. I want to know everything. Of course, that’s a stupid approach because we’re all choking to death on information overload. Every day I wish I could read five books and two dozen articles. If I could, I’d watch eighty hours of television. Every day I get more email than I can process in a week, so I never clean out my inbox. I know I’m not unique.

It’s going to be a while before science answers this question, but I figure there’s a limit to how much information we can process each day. Somewhere below that limit is the healthy amount to digest. And way below that level is the amount of information we remember. We piss out unabsorbed facts just like we piss out unused vitamins after taking our Centrums. How much daily information we can practically process, and better yet, how much information do we actually need to make us spiritually healthy?

Here’s a proposed theory. Information that’s good for us are facts we remember the longest. Usually that kind of knowledge is useful for living. Information we encounter today that is remembered tomorrow is of a higher quality than all that info we forgot with a good night’s sleep. And information we remember next week is superior to what we forget after two days. Anything we remember next year, or for the rest of our life, is primo wisdom.

In other words, learning something worth remembering is within the safe daily dosage. All those other fun facts are just like the yellow pee we make after taking vitamin B12 tablets. Here’s three videos. Which do you think you’ll remember a year from now.

I’m pretty sure food waste is something I’ll think about for the rest of my life because I deal with wasting food every day. I’ll probably remember the video about sharks every time I hear about a shark attack, which won’t be that often. The cute pug will be forgotten before the day is over.

I’m a bookworm. Most of the books I read are forgotten rather quickly. Probably because I read too many books. But also because I don’t try to remember them. Most people read to occupy their minds. Reading is pleasant and entertaining. Like television, it’s a rather mindless activity. Of course, most work is mindless repetition. Our minds are not IBM Watson supercomputers mining data.

I’m now rethinking the way I take in news and information. Every article, every book, every blog has a few key points that I might remember. What I want to learn is how to quickly spot works that are worthy of reading—and remembering.

Take this essay. Have I given you a concept that you’ll remember?


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

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