June 2, 2020

The Burden of Data in the Era Without Information

I want to begin this article with a few picture. I personally took these a few days ago.

What immediately comes to mind when you look at these photos? Do you think about how the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 1 of every 100 working-age adult incarcerated? Do you think of the unjust homicide of George Floyd, and the long history of racial conflicts in the US? Maybe, but before your brain has a chance to bring rise to these thoughts, your limbic system is already activated. Your limbic system interprets the imagery as unsafe, and as threats need to be dealt with quickly, it tries to deal with the threat by quickly reaching conclusions about the meaning of the imagery. You might feel fear, anger, or worry. If we give ourselves more time, however, our prefrontal cortex has a chance to catch up and produce more thoughtful reactions, like those just mentioned. But even then, your limbic system has already started a complex set of physiological changes that shape your thinking.

Why is this important? Because we are constantly being bombarded with imagery and rhetoric that activates our limbic systems and hijacks our thinking. The images above are data, not information. They tell you that something occurred at a particular time and place, but they do very little at helping you predict what will happen in the future, especially if your limbic system is doing the thinking. If we want to feel safe in the world, we must be able to make reasonable predictions about what is going to happen. What we need is information, not data. And we can never work out information if our limbic systems are constantly being overwhelmed with data like this. This is the burden of data.

There is a plethora of data, but we live in an era without information. Technology has changed the way that our brains work to understand our societies. There is fierce competition for your attention, like never before. As a result, information is now disseminated in such condensed form that it is no longer information at all, but simply data. And your brain has no idea what to do with it.

Psychologist Carl Jung wrote:

My thoughts are not my self, but exactly like the things of the world, alive and dead. . . . Thoughts are natural events that you do not possess, and whose meaning you only imperfectly recognize

What he implies is that each of our thoughts are formed out of the zeitgeist, or national consciousness, and are not purely our own. I think it is so important to keep this in mind during times like this. Remember that our opinions are formed in the same way as the opinions of all those all whom we disagree with–with our brain trying its best to process whatever data is available.

On whichever device, platform, or publication you use to learn about the world around you, realize that there is fierce competition for every second of your attention. Everyone, from publicists to politicians are using the same tricks to win your focus. Their stories and headlines are all market-tested, and ultimately it is the most appealing collection of words and imagery that rises to the top. In a world where The New York Times competes with TikTok for your attention, everything you hear and see is the result of market forces. Unfortunately, because our limbic system responds so promptly to emotionally charged content, it is nearly always this kind of content that makes its way into our attention. We rarely choose the type of content that appeals to our pre-frontal cortex, which is information produced thoughtfully–the kind of information that truly helps us feel safe in the world by predicting the future with accuracy.

There is a deficit of leadership, but there is not a deficit of smart people. The reason why we are lacking the likes of MLK, Timothy Leary, or Ronald Reagan is not because these people don't exist, but because we have failed to introduce technology into our lives in a way that works with our brains instead of against it.

We are now facing a global pandemic, nationwide protests, and an economic recession. Meanwhile, misinformation is rampant; anxiety and uncertainty are the prevailing moods. While far from a systematic cure, we can start to put our own minds at ease, and perhaps structure society a bit better, by taking back control of our individual information diets. Slow down, and deliberately allow your prefrontal cortex to think to decide what you want to know, and who you want to know it from, before you go looking for information.