Over-Connected: The psychology of information consumption
This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here.
I was excited to be invited to keynote the Management and Business Summit in Madrid, Spain last week. I spoke about the intersection of technology, analytics, and marketing. In particular, I focused on how our relationship with information has changed and the potential impact on brands. In this post, I want to focus on our relationship with information and some of the underlying factors at play that push us to be over-connected. What does it mean to be over-connected? Today, thanks to the proliferation of technology we have the ability to constantly engage with information. From Kindles and iPads to cellphones and smart television we have never lived in a time where connectivity was so ubiquitous. Everyone has something to say and everyone wants to be heard.
From Limited with Fixed End to Unlimited & Open Ended
To understand why we are drowning in information we need to spend some time tracing our evolving relationship with information. We are currently in the process of shifting towards an unlimited and open ended information ecosystem. Traditionally, we have operated on a foundation of data scarcity. Think back to when the newspaper and the evening news were your source of information. Whether it’s textbooks or the current event section, we have grown up in a world where there was always an end point. A finite moment we we’re done – we’ve accumulated all the necessary information to needed to master Grade 12 Chemistry or AP English. Now this is no longer the case – there is never an end point and we are battling years of conditioning to be ok with that.
My nephew was recently working on a school paper about the viscosity of lard and he was having trouble getting it done because he kept finding more and more research and information that he could source. He was looking for that end point. When I explained to him that he would never be able to read every single article about this topic before his deadline, he became upset. “How will I know that I know everything that I need to know about this subject?” He asked. And the best that I could offer was that eventually, you did reach a point where you were reasonably informed about general issues and had to make a call to stop researching and start writing.
As an author, I constantly struggle with this. It’s the reason why ArchiTechs never became a book and instead has become an ongoing series of essays. I kept waiting for that end point, and I never found it. Now, I’ve had to teach myself how to be ok with not knowing everything, and finding that point where I’m confident enough to be able to make a research-based claim while knowing that there is always a risk that somewhere out there could be a piece of information that could change everything.
Today, information is more fluid and we’ve developing a constant work in progress mentality that is different from the way we’ve been taught to evaluate information in the past. This new landscape has created some anxiety for us as consumers since I believe we are still unconsciously looking for that end point and explains why we sometimes get sucked into these information black holes – we’re looking for an anchor point that no longer exists and that is creating a struggle in how we interact with information.
Triangulating the Truth:
It’s not just the amount of information we have to process but the types of information. It used to be that only experts, journalists, and authors had the ability to share information. Now, anyone can set up a website and start publishing information in minutes. This has made identifying the truth to be far more complicated. It’s easier than ever to cover up allegiances, sponsorship, and political leanings and we must be vigilant in questioning the validity of our sources. Our grasp on what’s happening is less defined than what we’re used to and this creates a need to continuously seek out information to help inform our point of view. I think about how internet hoaxes, faked news stories, and other events have made me far less trusting of online content than I used to be. This distrust has made us extra careful, and I know that I always spend extra time double and triple checking any online source of information just to make sure it’s accurate.
This has become more difficult with the rise of native advertising – sponsored content that can pass for journalist editorial, making it difficult to separate unbiased reporting from corporate agendas. Jon Olliver has done a great piece on the threat of native advertising and the risk that it poses in disseminating information that takes an interesting twist on the truth.
I believe that teaching our children how to critically evaluate information is going to be a key survival skill in today’s information economy. We have to teach them to ask questions, investigate the source and to always be on the look out for misleading or biased information. We need to teach them how to triangulate the truth, to peel back the layers. Information is our greatest weapon, but it’s also something that can be used against us if we’re not careful.
Pavlov’s Dogs: Obessed with Notifications
Finally, let’s not discount the cognitive impact that comes from being constantly connected. Research has shown that when our devices ding with a notification, a small amount of dopamine is released into our brains. We’ve inadvertently trained ourselves to anticipate and look forward to those small dings and beeps. We get a rush from being stimulated, from being connected with other people, from following breaking news.
I believe we have developed an expectation of constant stimulation due to over-connectivity that could be troubling. I recently read an experiment where people were left alone in a room with nothing in it except a device that shocked them when they touched it. They were told to wait for the experiment to start but the real study was to see how people coped with boredom. It turns out – not well. Participants all used the machine – basically we have become people who would rather cause ourselves pain than sit around and do nothing.
TL:DR: We have an outdated model of information organization that is pushing us to find the fixed end – a mythical creature on it’s way to extinction in the age of the Internet. We have an unlimited amount of content to feed our desire and we’ve created a physiological reward mechanism that is training us to continuously engage with our devices and remain in a state of over stimulation. We need to develop a better approach to manging information, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts on that in an upcoming blog post.
If you’re interested in staying updated about my research, upcoming books and the cool things I find online, sign up for my monthly newsletter and get my best stuff first. Subscribe here! I also keynote about many of these subjects and am happy to design custom content for your event.