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Information Addiction

by on January 24, 2010

From Alan Jacobs

One of Nick’s commenters suggests that his point is misleading because we’re not paying all that much per bit of data. That’s probably true, but it may not make the point the commenter wants it to make. Consider an analogy to restaurant dining: Americans in the past twenty years have spent far, far more on eating out than any of their ancestors did, and that’s a significant development even if you point out that huge portions of fat-laden food mean that they’re not paying all that much per calorie. In fact, that analogy may work on more than one level: are we unhealthily addicted to information (of any kind, and regardless of quality) in the same way that we’re addicted to fatty foods?

Are we addicted to information? Shel Silverstein wrote in Ations

If we stop and talk awhile,
That’s a conversation.

If you ask someone how they’re doing, you get information, whether they respond or not. If you post on facebook, “today I had chips for lunch,” you get a response (information) whether ten people reply or no one replies. Are we addicted to information?
You’ve got to be kidding me.  It’s not a bad question to mutter to ones-self, but the obvious answer is yes.
Now, more to the point, is addiction to information unhealthy? Often, I’d rather not know the things I know. I’d rather not know about the quants, I’d rather not know about Abdulmutallab (admittedly, that was hard information to avoid), I’d rather not know about a lot of things I know. Then again, I’m glad I know these things – I’ll get back to that point in a moment.  There is also information I’m glad I know.  I’m glad I have the option to trawl facebook “keeping in touch” with friends, because that’s a lot easier than 460 email addresses, I’m glad I was just able to look up whether the correct word was ‘trawl’ or ‘troll,’ I’m glad futility closet is there to amuse me.
Let me answer the question. I’m of a bit of a split mind whether information is healthy or unhealthy (and I recognize one answer is that it could be both). Perhaps this is part of the point Alan Jacobs wanted to make, and didn’t write: more education often leads to more doubt; more doubt means that ‘educated people’ (people with education) doubt whether what they suggest is ‘right’ because they can see that there is more than one ‘right’ answer. We who are addicted to information question our own addiction, as well we should. Why should it matter to us what information we acquire beyond the few-hundred mile radius of people we know? I’ll leave you to figure that out; why does it matter?…
Why does it matter to me whether I have information (let’s just call it ‘extraneous information’ – information that doesn’t have a whole lot of direct impact on me, like the psychological history of Abdulmutallab (even if what he did will have some impact on me, his personal history doesn’t matter in the least))? To answer, I just went looking for a quote, and I couldn’t find it. But the quote is something like “one of the great things about a courtroom is that you are expected to listen to other points of view, see their point, and change your own view,” and this quote came from the Prop 8 trial about a week and a half ago (first week of trial). I expect that this ‘extraneous information’ will change me, will make me think, and develops my weltanschauung (my world view). I expect to be addicted to information, to want to know things I don’t already know, and I expect my view to change. And, in a way, I expect that addiction to be bad. I also consider to be good. (Is that Marxist enough for you?)

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