Buried under the unbearable lightness of infinite information

*This post is part of the information avalanche series. Part 1 lives here. Part 2 lives here.*

How much does a hipster weigh?

An “insta” gram. Har har har. But wait really how much is that? It doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? Avalanches offer a great metaphor for experiencing the digital revolution not least because information, like snow, is super light yet also capable of suffocation. We’ve all experienced the feeling of scrolling aimlessly through a social media feed, of checking email, texts and other notifications not really for any particular purpose, a loop excellently captured by xkcd.

The digital devices I am composing this missive on offers a portal many wonderous worlds. I can explore a new Decentraland, learn about any aspect of human knowledge, discuss topics with people across the globe… a world wide web of opportunities. Yet so often that exploratory potential does liberate so much as suffocate. At an individual level, the ability to do anything devolves into ennui that nothing really matters.

Avalanches are fascinating physical phenomenon with lots of analogues to our new information landscape. Snowpacks are triggered. The fault lines lie underneath and are hard to see or detect from above the surface. Lots of light fluffy snow, what’s ideal for deep powder skiing, can easily lead to an avalanche. Also too much sun and heat can lead to a wet slab avalanche.

Like information accessed via the internet, snow accretes as storms drop more and more. In some environments it melts away. In others it just persists and develops new layers. The changing weather affects the snowpack, just like the shift in the Current Thing affects the information landscape. Both snow and information are light, insta-like objects with both tremendous power and lightness. Also like a snowflake, every bit of information is by definition unique.

Information avalanches can come at an individual level in overwhelming our personal sensemaking apparatus. We context switch constantly and fry our brains. That reminds me of a terrain trap, a small feature on a mountain that doesn’t look like much but can still kill you. Think of someone who spends all day every day in a miserable social media loop. That’s a slow death.

Information avalanches can also cascade in a massive way. Think of the role of social media in the Arab spring or the 2016 election or ongoing Great Weirding. Those are huge shifts that can suffocate and smother even if you don’t use social media or the internet much at all. Plenty of people fell into TDS or anti-TDS or anti-anti-TDS in the crazy years. Many still are stuck in that loop, buried under information that overwhelms.

Those cascades escape the narrow confines of the internet, bursting out like a downfall of snow down a hill, breaking through trees and other objects in their path. Things like QAnon have broken out of little 4chan like bubbles to become broader forces in society. There’s no walden pond far enough away that could escape a highest level information cascade that causes a nuclear war via rapid escalation of info wars.

Those avalanches seem to happen more and more frequently, though not to the level of consequence of nuclear war. Societally there is a section of our population focused on The Current Thing, the topic at hand that everyone seemingly is talking about — at least on the Twitter and amongst the chattering class.

So what is one to do is this environment?

There are a couple obvious parallels to how one might make decisions in avalanche terrain. One should always have a plan. That should include criteria for making different decisions — clear thresholds like if any member of the group objects, then avoid the risk. If you don’t have an intention, it’s all too easy to get sucked into and churned out by the information machine.

It’s key to not go alone. That’s important for not rescues in the chance you do become buried but also in sensemaking and making decisions. In the information environment, it’s helpful to have different inputs from orthogonal communities to avoid getting sucked into any tar pit in the Great Weirding. It’s all too easy to get caught up in a socially constructed truth that spins into a mob mentality.

Multiple perspectives stemming from multiple groups help one grasp at the underlying reality, just like multiple means of sensemaking the snow pack — weather history, a snow pit, any cracking, previous evidence of avalanche and other signals — illuminate to the deeper risk.

Humans have certain biological limits that we ignore at our peril. We have biases and blind spots. Studying those can often be a path only to recreating those biases in new and different ways. One obvious one is that we can only hold so many things in memory— approximately seven distinct things as I recall. Writing provides a useful tool to embody that data in a symbolic medium.

Computers extend that power tremendously, but also can lead us to bury ourselves in our own delusions.

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