The age of the internet has blessed us, but that has also come in the form of a curse as well. Today, in contrast with the previous century, the curse of the internet comes in the form of the extremely easy availability of information. You can instantly know, whatever you want to know, in a couple of seconds. All you need is an outlet to the internet (a computer, smartphone, smart TV, smart watch, etc.). That’s all great, but what if you just want to brush up your knowledge on the daily activities of the world, also known as the news? Where do you get it? What interests you/what do you consider news? The dilemma in this case is between two options: read everything from every source or find one source that best suits your tastes in regards to information. …

This past week, while hanging out with a friend, updating ourselves with what’s been going on in each other’s lives we came across the issue that he is following too many people on twitter, whereas I’m not. We went through his list of followers, and the majority of the useless people populating his feed were either Arsenal bloggers, news aggregators, or intellectual thought provoking political issue propagators that can be also categorised as news aggregators as well. The problem is that he has a borderline compulsion disorder with the action of updating himself with the information presented on his twitter feed. It has turned as such because the 460+ tweeters in his feed update that said feed almost every minute. For my friend’s sake I would like to thank Jack Dorsey for the idea of limiting tweets to 140 characters1. Otherwise, going through a feed would have been a full time job.

Anyway, contrasting his compulsion of twitter with mine of Google Reader. I have at least 8 blogs that I follow regularly, and by ‘regularly’ I mean go through every post that they publish, and read through all the interesting (at least for me) ones. Those are mainly technology blogs, which feed one of my hobbies (of being a tech geek). I am in a similar situation as my friend, because as he goes through his twitter feed, I require about the same amount of time to go through my rss feed. I may have a lower count number of the ‘stuff’ that comes up on my feed compared to his, but digesting my feed is a bit more arduous.

While conversing, I realised that we have found our respective selves in this situation because of trust issues.

It is this blessing/curse of the availability of the information through the internet that we have grown accustomed to and feel compelled to read not just the actual news, but read about it from more than two sources/perspectives. That, I believe, is healthy in terms of democracy, and being an informed citizen, but it is SOOooo time consuming. Sometimes when I don’t have the luxury of attending to my rss feed, when after three or four days I come upon it, I am greeted with the (1000+) indication of new stuff that I ‘have to’ read. How can you not read all of them? As in the words of Dr. Dre: ‘it is a must’. What goes through my head when I contemplate the ‘mark all as read’ button is: ‘what if something interesting happened?’; ‘what if something cool was invented?’; ‘what if a really interesting article is published?’. The thought of having the opportunity to be informed/entertained/educated and not using it is just too dire in contrast with the alternative. So I embark upon the adventure of reading/going over everything. I may lose a huge amount of time doing it (maybe 6+ hours) but I believe (or let myself believe) that I learned something that I otherwise would not have if I’d skipped it. I know that my twitter (almost) addicted friend would concur.

Now, as is becoming usual with my blog posts, after posting some background of the issue, we get to the problem.

The problem in this case is that we have too much information and too little time to consume it. Also, the ease of availability of said information makes some of us compelled to consume it, otherwise we can easily consider ourselves ignorant. This feeling of having it and not using it is so strong that we have become a society where we scold the inquirers of basic information. This even led to www.lmgtfy.com (a sarcastic Google tutorial).

As with everything in our society, we have the ingenuity of dividing our labour. Even this job of finding and making information available to us is a job commonly known as The Editor. That job has taken many forms. In the heyday of newspapers, that used to be one person that had the ultimate power of deciding yes or no, or even deciding the way which the information leaned politically. Thankfully, with a free competitive economy, that power became more diminished so as to avoid Citizen Kane like figures. And with the internet that is even more difficult. However, this luxury of not having someone who tells you what is relevant or not, the person that filters the junk from the gems, is also a burden. Now you have to do his/her job as well. You have to read everything; you have to filter ir/relevant stuff yourself. I have become great at the art of skimming. I’m sure many others have as well. But the time has come where even skimming is not enough. It’s just too much. It used to be like swimming upstream and staying in the same place. Now you can’t. The mighty river of information can easily push you downstream all the way into exhaustion.

Tackling this problem is extremely difficult. There are in my opinion two roads you can take with regards to this issue which have their disadvantages, which are a deal breakers for the opposite camp.

The first way is, as I’ve mentioned above, is to read everything yourself. It will consume a lot of your energy and time, but in the end you have different opinions for an issue and you can form your own thoughts regarding to that issue. You still would have to be smart and know what to read, because there is a lot of junk in the wonderful world of ‘ze interwebs’. That’s what I’m doing now. This can take the form of an rss feed, or just add the same outlets on your twitter/facebook/google+ lists and you get almost all the blog posts in ‘social network’ form. This takes a huge amount of scrolling and tapping. Therefore most of the world just doesn’t have time for that, and gets their information from wherever (random TV, newspaper, or social network ‘share’).

The second way is to do it like the rest of the world. Cave in to the notion of division of labour, and let someone else tell you what is newsworthy. Just watch whatever AP, Reuters, BBC, or Al-Jazeera are generating and you’re set. This way, you spend the fraction of the time getting yourself up to date on current events and good to go. Or, you can go a step further and read two opposing* news outlets, one liberal and one conservative. That’s even better, but also requires twice as much time.
*Yes, I believe that the job of editing news also leaks some political agendas, however much they want to be neutral. Depending on which way the editors lean, the other side will be edited out of the news because it would seem stupid or irrelevant to them.

Now obviously the second way of consuming information seems better, because it saves you time. However, those that have gotten themselves stuck in the other camp cannot bear the thought of putting that much trust into the hands of so very few. It’s just too much power over their knowledge. On the other hand, it would be great to have that free time to go to the gym, or read a book, or know what the hell that background noise was that was bothering you, while you’re reading your ‘stuff’ (or to put it into druggie lingo “getting your fix”).

There are some overly ambitious attempts at converging these two worlds, by using technology. There are attempts that rely heavily on your social circle to generate your news (e.g. Fancy, Flipboard, Pulse, Google Currents). But what if you are different from your friends? Your interests are those other non-popular things. Then you’re missing out.

There are also attempts by Google (by recent purchase of Wavii, and the hire of Ray Kurzweil), to understand the information from all outlets and serve it to you deliciously. I don’t know how long that’s going to take, but I’m intrigued.

Thus we, information junkies’ are faced with a dilemma. Should we, or shouldn’t we put our trust into an information editing entity to ease our lives and save us time? Is it worth it? I guess at the moment we have the luxury of choosing which way to go, but as life marches on, and other priorities take our time (family, kids, more work), we are going to have no alternative.

I’m still going to try and not press that ‘mark all as read’ button on my Google Reader (or whatever takes its place after July 1st), and try to see how long that lasts. Until then…

Show 1 footnote
  1. Maybe that’s the appeal of twitter, that its short bite size information can be digested easily