Data Overload

Humans have an intrinsic desire to learn more—a phenomenon seen throughout our history. Hunter-gatherer ancestors strove to find the best means of securing food and shelter in a harsh world. Early agriculturalists attempted to know the meaning of weather so as to ready themselves and their crops against danger. We have always been gathering data. Education itself grew out of the need to equip members of the species for survival in a world that was trying to kill them.

Our brains have evolved to support this need, to treat the gathering of information as a task that should be physiologically rewarded. Whenever we learn something new, our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in pleasure and motivation.[1] This is the same chemical that is released when we eat food, have sex, or consume certain drugs. It is simple biology that drives us to seek out and learn more stuff, since any of it might be relevant to our survival.

The attempt to transfer knowledge across the species as quickly and effortlessly as possible led to revolutions in technology and thought: the printing press, the radio, the television. Today, we can experience events across the world in real time. Information can quickly and effortlessly be delivered straight into the home on a massive scale. The 20th century American nuclear family gathered together to watch television and consume information together. My grandmother was one of those Luddites with the opinion that television caused brain rot: those countless hours spent vegetating in front of the television fulfilled the biological urge to gather data without learning how to make use of that on a personal level.

Now, the Internet has brought us to the next level. We are constant consumers of information, spending countless hours every day on Facebook, Reddit, or any number of websites that satiate our addiction for the next quick fix of data.[2] Can we actually remember all the little things we gather during those hours? Or are they truly lost to us?

The Internet has grown this issue to a new extreme. We are constantly consuming, which is all fine and good until we reflect on how often we actually remember what we learned in those many hours in front of our computers? How often do we access that data on a personal level? Can we even do so coherently?

Today, anyone with an idea and a computer can put their words into a format that is already mass-produced for public consumption. The gates to knowledge have been thrown wide open, leaving us to trod upon the bodies of the gatekeepers that once controlled for the validity and usefulness of knowledge itself. In the age of the Internet, how can we know anything we read is true? Are we looking at false numbers? Is that picture a fraud, photoshopped to support someone’s argument? No longer must a would-be theorist validate his data with an institution that will publish it; now, he can say what he wants without true fear of reproach.

We have become addicted to the consumption of information, but it is never clear if that information is accurate in and of itself – we are too concerned with quickly consuming the next bit to assess the validity of the data we process. Instead of gathering useful knowledge about our world and reflecting on the meaning of that knowledge, we are more concerned with our next quick fix of data to satiate our desire to simply know more stuff. But in the end, what good is data if we never process it, if we never reflect on its meaning?

The problem of information scarcity has become the problem of information abundance. Consider a website like Gawker – designed to bombard us with so many news snippets that it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the meaning out from the white noise of every little thing that happens in the world. Data is now so easy to access that we struggle to make sense out of it.

Take the Boston bombing manhunt, for example, during which a few self-appointed detectives decided to utilize the big data of the internet to find the bomber. [3] In the end, these e-sleuths, desperate for internet glory, simply produced false leads, slowing down the authorities and harassing innocent people. Though internet crowdsourcing provided the information used to eventually find the bomber, trouble lies in the ability of the inexperienced to misuse their newfound knowledge

Gawker truly provides some gems when it comes to satiating data addiction.[4][5][6][7] But did I gain anything from it? Perhaps these “stories” would be worth reporting if the stories themselves said something meaningful about the information they report on; instead, they are mere snippets of data: a quote, a picture, perhaps a short and entertaining video designed to hold our attention long enough to get us to look at the advertisements on the side of the page. There is no depth or context to be found here. There is no larger narrative to bring these facts together into something meaningful. Instead, they are designed to feed our short-term addiction to data; to temporarily satiate our desire for the next tiny tidbit of information that will give us that biological kick. This is the journalism of the twenty-first century: all breadth and no depth. When we relentlessly consume small bits of information about a great variety of different things but lack the wherewithal to make sense of any of it, is it possible to say we’ve truly gained anything at all?


[1] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=are-we-addicted-to-inform

[2] More time was spent on reddit during the writing of this article than the actual writing of this article.

[3] http://nation.time.com/2013/04/23/inside-reddits-hunt-for-the-boston-bombers/ [4]“Watch the Fight Between Students That A Florida Bus Driver Arranged” - http://jalopnik.com/bus-driver-charged-with-staging-fight-between-two-stude-501627929

[5] “Chinese Officials Are Using Giant Rocks to Get Promotions” - http://gawker.com/chinese-officials-try-for-promotions-through-placement-501819013

[6] “Our New National Emblem: Bald Eagles Looting Fish Guts from Truck Bed” - http://gawker.com/our-new-national-emblem-bald-eagles-looting-fish-guts-500278827

[7] “Aspiring BBW Fetish Model Gorging Herself to Gain 200 Pounds” - http://gawker.com/aspiring-bbw-fetish-model-gorging-herself-to-gain-200-p-500218767