Strategies for surviving the information avalanche

Some initial thoughts…. epistemic status: summarizing reflections that I’ve been mulling for several years but things that I’m still testing and refining in operation.

What do we mean when we say the digital revolution changes everything? Some things obviously don’t change like our biological need for food, water and shelter.

Yet some aspects of the human condition, like how we share information with each other and understand the world around us, emphatically are transformed.

The internet offers new ways to utilize basic, pre-linguistic communication primitives:

  1. Emojis offer the means to communicate symbolically without a shared language, recreating pictographic means of writing.

  2. Pictures, easily taken and shared, enable us to communicate with movement, body position and our relation to the world around us.

  3. Computation, at our fingertips, allows the user to model, calculate, and generally conduct simulations of the world in which we live.

These three paths mirror the Lacanian triangle: 1) the virtual, 2) the real and 3) the imaginary.

The virtual at a deep level refers to the ability to create a system of signs, of symbols where one thing refers to another. Emojis do that very well, particularly for our inner world where an emoji can serve much better than a wall of text or long conversation. As the parallel with pictograms illustrates, emojis are not radically new, but in fact are an ancient information technology. What is incredibly new is that sharing them does not require any really skill -- no artistic ability-- just the ability to mash buttons.

The real world is a concept fraught with philosophical peril, though one of the most useful definitions I’ve found is the notion that the real is “that which continues to exist even after you stop believing in it.” Pictures fill that role, though somewhat problematically, as deepfakes and also just lack of context can mess with our intuitions about what is actually happening in a picture. The key point though is that pictures are a new means of communicate claims about the real world.

The imaginary can conjure up unserious ideas, but the notion of using our mind to explore what might be and use the results to change the world around us is incredibly powerful, perhaps one of the most important aspects of what makes us human. The ability to compute on demand, where ever, whenever, provides a dramatic extension and (potential) leveling up of that power. In particular, the internet enables anyone, from anywhere to share their imaginative ideas of alternative worlds.

Notably, whether you’re Very Online tweeting 24/7 with super savvy digital skills or personally avoid the inter-webs entirely on your idyllic Walden-style pond, you cannot avoid how these basic forces affect human civilization and thus your relation to it. That includes me! I’m starting this blog chain to explore how those changes in the most basic modes of communication affect, well, everything. My hope is that these three principles will provide a lens to provide some clarity what naturally will be a meandering inquiry. Here is a list of questions that are top of mind this morning:

  1. How has the news changed? Sometimes it feels like authoritative, respectable news outlets focus more on gossip -- so and so important figure said such and such -- rather than events that affect the world? Is that actually a trend?

    1. How does the notion of fake news differ in “Western” democracies like the one in which I live from authoritarian states?

    2. What do people mean when they say fake news? What are good ways to figure out if people just disagree with the underlying worldview of the news source or there are factual errors?

  2. What are healthy ways of making sense of the world in relation to others?

    1. Over the weekend, I was out of town and ate at Subway. On the television, CNN was blaring a live feed of what happened in Uvalde. Meanwhile a bunch of strangers and I went about our business, exchanging little more than the minimum number of words. That seems sort of crazy in that here we have a very visceral scene playing out in front of us and the norm is to just sort of numbly pretend that nothing abnormal is happening.

    2. This morning my wife mentioned she was reading a book on comfort. What’s are good ways to make sense of these sorts of claims? It definitely felt true. We also can’t exactly ask whether humans living 120,000 years ago didn’t also create problems or whether they thought they were comfortable. Is that type of skepticism actually useful though?

  3. What are good personal digital hygiene habits? Things like being intentional about checking the news, email, social media and the many other information inputs that can easily overwhelm us.

    1. This sort of thing can lapse into the self-help ish space though there definitely seems to be a big gap and appetite for useful rules and practices to deal with what can feel like chaos.

    2. There are good books written by thoughtful folks like Cal Newport that talk about these dynamics at an individual level. What are the right type of institutions that can help people that struggle to deal with the information avalanche?

    3. There are also well intentioned yet polemical books like Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I wonder if there’s space for habits, norms and institutions that can make social media more of an agora and less a toxic dumpster fire.

  4. What does web3 have to do with all of this? Is the third wave of the internet really just about crypto? What does the “internet of everything” as AOL founder Steve Case calls it really mean? What do digitally native institutions look like? How can we disentangle the hype from substance?

  5. Where might I scavenge useful tips, tricks and strategies in this space? Like a fairly stereotypical sort of knowledge worker, I fairly regularly read Tyler Cowen and Venkatesh Rao’s blogs. Below are two posts on each of their thinking that have stuck with me.

Overall I’m interested in exploring these questions and even more so digging into the more general issue of “How can one figure out useful answers to these types of questions? “ What are good strategies for making sense of the avalanche of information in which so many of us live?

Writing is one tried and true strategy to make meaning out of the world, a tool to move closer towards an Archimedean point, a strategy that works even better in dialogue with others that can help illuminate your blind spots. Thus, I have started this blog chain to clarify my own thinking and hope that it also provides some value to your own. Thanks for reading and please reach out @info_avy on twitter if you have any comments, questions or conundrums to explore. Cheers!

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