Information overload

April 01, 2009|By KATHLEEN PARKER

What if everybody just took a timeout?

Now there's a concept for a TMI-addled nation. It isn't only too much information, but the pitch and tenor of delivery that have us in a persistent state of psychic frenzy. From cable news to microblogs to the latest - Fox Nation - life's background music has become one prolonged car alarm.

The phrase "too much information," a now-cliched, talk-to-the-hand deflection, isn't just a gentle whack at someone who tells you more than you want to know about his Cialis experience. It's a toxic asset that exhausts our cognitive resources while making the nonsensical seem significant.

TMI may indeed be the despot's friend. Keep citizens so overwhelmed with data that they can't tell what's important and eventually become incapable of responding to what is.

In 2006, the world produced 161 exabytes (an exabyte is 1 quintillion bytes) of digital data, according to Columbia Journalism Review. Put in perspective, that's 3 million times the information contained in all the books ever written. By next year, the number is expected to reach 988 exabytes.

The massive explosion of information has made us all a little batty. Just ask the congressional assistants who field frantic phone calls from constituents.

"Everybody's come unhinged," one told me recently. "They think we're going to hell in a handbasket. And maybe we are."

People sense that they need to know more in order to understand an increasingly complex world. And, of course, it's fun. The urge to know and be known is a uniquely human indulgence. Yet, with so much data coming from all directions, we risk paralysis.

More important, we also risk losing our ability to process the Big Ideas that might serve us better. It isn't only Jack and Jill who are tethered to the twittering masses, after all. Our thinkers at the highest levels are, too. Consider: Who didn't want to surrender his BlackBerry?

In fact, brain research shows that we do our best thinking when we're not engaged and focused, yet fewer of us have time for downtime. Daydreaming, we used to call it. Ask creative people where they got their best ideas and they'll say, "Dunno. Just came to me out of the blue." If you're looking for Eureka, you probably won't find it while following David Gregory's tweets. More likely, the ideas that save the world will present themselves in the shower or while we're sweeping the front stoop. What the world needs now isn't more, but less.

Unchecked "infomania" can lead to a lower IQ, according to a 2005 Hewlett-Packard study. The research, conducted by a University of London psychologist, found that people distracted by e-mail and phone calls lost 10 IQ points, more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana - or comparable to losing a night's sleep.

Given that the brain is apparently more receptive when less focused, might our myriad problems stand a better chance of creative solutions were we more unplugged? In the literal sense, that is.

Back in the day, Timothy Leary urged boomers to "turn on, tune in, drop out," which was his snappy way of encouraging the mind-expanding benefits of LSD. (It came to him in the shower, natch.) A more-apt mantra today might be "turn off, tune out, drop in." Turn off the switch, tune out the noise, drop in on a friend. Can't hurt. Might help.

Hitting pause now ...

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.