Do you consume information or does information consume you?

In 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said this:

There were 5 exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days.

It was quoted in all your favourite tech media outlets like TechCrunch,  ReadWriteWeb,  Fox News,  Inc, and  The Huffington Post.

The only problem? It’s not true.

In recent years another quote has been shared a lot, that goes something like this:

More information has been created in the last 2 years, than the rest of the history combined.

Who knows if it’s true, that’s not the point here.

The point is that, the growth of information available for consumption, can be roughly illustrated as this:

And herein lies a problem, because of what Huxley described as “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.

The 4-step lifecycle of information and Information FOV

As consumers of information, we have to be aware of the journey that information takes before reaching us. I will divide this journey in 4 steps: Generation, Filtering, Consumption and, hopefully, Organization.  

Yet after the information is generated, and before it is filtered, there’s another concept we need to keep in mind.

Information Field of View:

Information in your field of view, is basically anything you could access with a relatively small amount of effort. Let’s say, it’s information that is 2 clicks away from you. One click to open the app, another to get to the information.

This works for your email client. You open (1st click). Scroll around, and open the newsletter you just received (2nd click).

And it works for social. You open twitter app (1st click). You scroll your feed, find a link to an article you think you might read later (2nd click).

I think it’s important to be aware of what kinds of information are in your field of view.

Making parallels with nutrition, if you have junk food in your fridge, the likelihood of you consuming junk is much higher than if you don’t put junk in your fridge in the first place.

Low Information Diet

If you’re not happy with your current info diet, there are 2 ways to move forward. You can either decrease the amount of information you consume, or increase the quality of information.

If you go the first route, you will likely find yourself in an echo chamber. And  not only will you believe many things that are just false, you will also fail to learn things that are true.

If you go the second route, you will find yourself in the company of the likes of Mark Mason and Tim Ferris, who popularized the low information diet in 2011.

The message was simple: eliminate the information (especially news), don’t consume it. And organise it.

Balaji Srinivasan proposes a more strict info diet, with 2 key questions:

1. Is this piece of information directly relevant to your life?
2. Are you going to check every line of this content?

The fact-checking component is actually built-in for some kinds of information. Tutorials, how-tos, youtube DIY guides. Also weather reports, stock price news.

It sounds hard to actually fact check all the content you consume. But ask yourself this. Are you building knowledge or just consuming information?

Push information vs pull

The problem with social and newsletters is that they all are pushing information to you. They’re asking for your attention.

As opposed to you consciously pulling this information. Like you would, if you were to search for it in a search engine.

Why feeds work?

In an article about information diet, Angus Hervey wrote back in 2019:

As the ratio of action per incoming piece of information falls to zero, the new value of information is its immediate pleasure. It becomes increasingly indistinguishable from entertainment.

It is even more true today, as it is often hard to evaluate how useful any information you consume really is. From Kardashians to business news to foreign wars. Everything is infotainment now.

Why do the social media feeds work then?

Dopamine hits and recency bias.

You want to consume new information instead of old stuff, partly because of recency bias. It’s a cognitive bias that favors recent events over historic ones.

In a pre-historic survival context, it makes sense, you need the most recent information about the location of saber-toothed cats. In a modern world, it’s working against you.

The problem with feeds is not that they’re intrinsically bad. It’s that they are addictive and hard to quit. Same with certain types of food and alcohol. There’s no “one sip” of alcohol.

Tools that can help

Information Generation

This part of information’s journey is not really a problem, there’s plenty of information out there already. And this will only get worse with tools like GPT-3 that will generate even more articles, audio and video content.

Information Filtering

There are some quality filters built-in most of the tools you use today, things that would prevent spam messages from appearing in comments on Youtube videos, in Twitter, etc. But other than that, you’re on your own.

That’s why I really value a select group of people, self-appointed heroes really, the Curators. People who scan the internet, subscribe to dozens on newsletters, listen to all the popular podcasts, top trending news, recent research, Twitter Threads, you name it.

These people, if the curator’s interests closely align with yours, are worth their weight in gold. Many curators use Substack, along with other email sending tools.

Information Consumption

On one hand we have Neurolink, which hopefully will enable people to process the information much faster, so the content diet might not be a problem in the future.

Right now though, we have to settle for rollups.

Tools like Mailbrew, which combine RSS and Twitter feeds, and Reddit and your newsletter subscriptions into one daily digest. You receive just one email per day, with all the information you wanted to receive that day (from the sources you picked).

It helps, because it limits the amount of information in your Information Field of View. Browsing Twitter, and especially Reddit would be a distraction fest otherwise.

But it’s not a perfect solution. If you subscribe to 20 newsletters, you’re still going to get 20 newsletter-worth of information, it’s just all packaged in one email.

Information Organization

Finally, there’s organization. Recently, there has been a surge in number of very useful tools for information organization.

These include two-directional note taking app Roam (which I passionately hate), Readwise (a brilliant tool to store and re-surface your book notes), Pocket, Airr (highlighting for podcasts).

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