Is context the critical ingredient for not getting buried by the information avalanche?

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

“Context is that which is scarce.”

     -Tyler Cowen

I lit up the Technology a few days back, a typical Tuesday, not dissimilar from any other. Several red icons flashed with numbers inside. A thread of text messages from friends. 47 iterations of back and forth squabbles. My neck tightened with the weight of knowing that at some point I would check those messages. I did not look forward. Instead I felt trapped in the persistent almost future, a weight of what might be lurking their, a phantom in the image reflecting from the glass brick like a predator lurking at the edge of the lake. I was poised. I was too ready to strike really, for something so silly as a text thread. The biochemical response to those messages was not all that different though than what I’d experienced in moments of danger outdoors.

I had a choice, yes, but not really if I wanted to stay in the group. Exit is the social nuclear option.

Once upon a time, many worlds away, a Sapien not too unlike myself would have rightly considered their status in small groups critical for their survival. For approximately 99.7% of our existence as a species status meant so much more than the drama that today we associate with high school. That could mean lower mating prospects, lower share of food, and a real lower likelihood of evolutionary success. Leaving the band entirely was to gamble with one’s very life. The odds of finding a new tribe were uncertain and life alone was incredibly risky.

The history of the word context begins with Latin, stemming from roots con meaning “with” and text meaning “to weave.” That’s a good framing for a time when there seemingly infinite threads to follow.[1] One certainly can scroll forever in social media. Meanwhile for all the talk about the social nature of media today, the simple truth is that the Newsfeed collapses context. A news article with NSFW video from the front lines in Ukraine will be juxtaposed right after a funny cat video and before a

No one other than the user, the scribe tasked with sorting through the infinite scroll will be tasked with weaving together those widely disparate threads. Perhaps that is why people infamously adopt a blank stare when poised in the iPhone prayer?

That information reality is not actually entirely new. The internet is an evolution in the long chain of transformative media technology innovation stretching back since Homo Sapiens sat around a fire swapping stories though particularly noteworthy in the last century. Many similar stories about the detrimental effects of listening to too much radio and television were also shared.

Part of the challenges with the internet is that we still don’t have good social norms around sharing information. How can that be several decades after the birth of social media? Consider that several decades after the invention of radio, broadcasting War of the Worlds caused many panics as listeners rushed to prepare for the first wave of the Martian invasion. The idea that Fiction would be shared on a radio channel was assumed to be impossible.

Today we are still at a very early, culturally immature state in our norms around sharing information online. There are tons of examples of people falling prey to Nigerian prince scams or copy pasting images that go viral only later to be debunked. The cozyweb provides one adaptive response to the context desert of our increasingly online lives. In case you’re not familiar, the cozyweb is a term for the sharing tidbits in information among nonpublic communities (like the writers group I’m getting feedback on for this series!).

The strangest customs we have for the internet, however, are how we use technologies in person. Those social conventions would be profoundly alien to our ancestors. Here I’m not talking about the infamous couple not talking over dinner but both on their phones, which actually if mutually agreed upon really isn’t all that odd. Sometimes people can enjoy a little quiet time. Would anyone remark if a couple was each reading a book at a cafe in the pre-digital era? That actually sounds quite nice!

No what’s truly bizarre is the extent to which we do not weave together the dazzling array of threads to which we are exposed. There is a well documented decline in the number of close friends that people have. And there is also the simple truth that people cling to their phones like a sacred totem that cannot be shared with anyone else. Once upon a time, I took a road trip with several close friends at the end of college. I was the first one to have a smart phone, which my friends called the Technology since it had then novel powers of being able to answer queries on the fly and navigate us.

The wielder of the Technology was known as the Conduit. Then it was not that big a deal for others to wield the Technology. It was a tool. Yes no of us passed the Technology to a random person on the street but just like we took turns driving, we each took turns sharing the power. Today we are all isolated Conduits. We each have to scroll through infinite newsfeeds, deluges of work emails, make sense of countless claims and counterclaims of what is fake and what is real.

So yes it is possible to develop a monk-like discipline and find a way to put every digital thread in its proper place -- work in one bucket, social media in one bucket (perhaps the trash lol), news in another bucket -- and have a series of procedures in place for moving bits from one bucket to another, or knowing just when to leave things be. That’s exhausting work and as we’ve all become aware of, we are not all monks. What can we do? I’m still figuring that out but I do know one thing for sure.

Bucket brigades are better tackled together.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider listening to Anna Merredith’s - “Nautilus.”

I first heard that song while driving and listening to the local classical music station. The host mentioned the song was meant to convey the cacophony that social media can often cause, overloading our senses with many dimensions of information

[1] a fun mathematical exercise would be to try to play at a proof of whether there are a just an arbitrarily large number of threads or whether that truly rises to infinity. I might just have to do that if I get the time.

Collect this post to permanently own it.
Pioneering Spirit logo
Subscribe to Pioneering Spirit and never miss a post.