Information is Overrated

It’s said that we live in the Information Age. Yet what is the purpose of information? I see at least three possibilities…

First, information can make our decision more effective, especially regarding threats and opportunities. Is that sound in the forest a predator from which I should flee? Is this fruit edible? Does this potential mate find me attractive? If I click this like button, will my friends disapprove? That kind of thing.

Yet it strikes me that these days we often consume information in such a mindless way that it moves us to make unnecessarily frequent decisions, or at least to think that we need to. As an example, I follow an investing approach called the permanent portfolio, which requires rebalancing only once every few years; however, if I followed the financial press I might feel the need to make frequent investing decisions (most of which would be driven by fear or greed). Similarly, I eat a balanced diet containing lots of fruits and vegetables, but if I paid close attention to health news I might feel the need to reguarly modify my diet so as to include the latest fad foods. And these areas are fairly objective because they’re based on needs for health and wealth: don’t get me started on information about celebrities, athletes, politicians, and other such personalities.

Second, closely related to information as an input to a decision is information as a trigger for emotion. If a work colleague tells me that layoffs are imminent, I might get worried that I’m about to lose my job. If a friend shares a cutesy cat video, I might experience a shot of happy feelings. If everyone I know is worked up about the latest crime spree, police violence, or international incident, I might get worked up, too.

Just as our obsessive consumption of information leads to excessive motion in the realm of decision, so also it leads to excessive motion (literally, e-motion) in realm of feeling. We are always reacting: sometimes overjoyed but more often hopping mad, downtrodden, grieving, depressed, restlessly anxious. By filling our heads with information, we have lost our heads.

A third purpose for information might be to help us craft our views about the world, even if no immediate decisions or emotions are involved. Following the familiar scala scientia, information might help us gain knowledge, and knowledge might help us gain wisdom. For instance: what would it say about society or human nature if Putin succeeds in his bloodthirsty, maniacal destruction of a free and independent Ukraine?

Well, it’s a bad situation over there, but how much can we really come to know by seeking information about every twist and turn of the Russian invasion? It seems to me that we’re not learning all that much which is new. Better, I think, to familiarize ourselves with the long tradition of Russian autocracy or, even deeper, the social and historical insights of Thucydides. From that direction lies knowledge and wisdom – not from the ceaseless, breathless chatter of events, events, events.

Thus along these three dimensions – action, reaction, knowledge – I see few benefits and many costs from immersing ourselves in the flood of information to which we are all exposed these days. Information is overrated.

One thought on “Information is Overrated

  1. I relate to this as a new parent. There is so much information about what you should be doing or what you should be buying and it’s an unnecessary amount of decision fatigue. I try to steer clear of most of it, but it still sneaks in!

    Liked by 1 person

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