Features editor Alana Harris discusses the downfalls of the digital age and its onslaught of information
Words By Alana Harris
Living in the digital age means that we consume an unprecedented amount of information on a daily basis. For most, reaching for their phone, replying to messages, looking at their emails and taking a scroll on Instagram is the first thing they do when they wake up, and the last thing they do before going to sleep. And now, with a global pandemic forcing as much of our lives to migrate online as possible, it’s becoming increasingly important to examine the consequences of our online activity.
Before the online world, there were numerous restrictions when it came to publishing new information. Time restraints, distribution costs, issues with accessibility, censorship and limited reach capabilities all meant that new information was much more restricted in how far it got, and how many people saw it. Digitizing content has meant that these barriers have been removed, and now, not only can anybody be the publisher of information, but a lot of content can be distributed with no human input at all.
Now that the information floodgates are well and truly open, information thrusts itself at us in countless ways. We view, receive notifications for, and create, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, emails, TikTok videos, Instagram posts and news updates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no pause on the volume of information which is constantly being added to the internet.
It’s hard to fathom the volume of the information available to us online. As of 2019 there were roughly 4.6 billion internet users around the world, which means that soon, two thirds of the world’s population could be online. And the more users there are, the more data there is. In 2019 it was estimated that there were 4.4 zettabytes of data in our digital universe. And it has been predicted that by 2025, that figure will have increased to 175 zettabytes.
I know what you’re thinking – what on earth is a zettabyte? Well, a single zettabyte is equivalent to 1,125,899,910,000,000 megabytes, which, yes, is a very, very big number. To translate that figure into something slightly (emphasis on slightly) more comprehensible, if you were to attempt to download 175 zettabytes at the average internet speed, it would take you 1.8 billion years. Welcome to the concept of information overload, also known as “infobesity” “infomania” and “infoxication”.
Regardless of what you call it, the meaning stays the same. Information overload is the state of feeling overwhelmed from exposure to too much information, it’s the term which describes the stress or anxiety you feel when you consume more information than you can digest, to the point where you feel more confused than knowledgeable, and where effective decision making becomes much more difficult.
So rather than the plethora of information available online meaning that we can make more informed choices, it may actually be doing more harm than good. The occurrence of information overload means that without even realising it, our online habits could be detrimental in a number of ways.
Some researchers have argued that the modern online environment can lead to attention deficit traits. In fact, a recent study conducted by researchers from the Technical University of Denmark has suggested that attention span is narrowing across the globe due to the amount of information that is presented to the public. It has been suggested that this could be caused due to the large amounts of energy needed when consuming a lot of information. Our minds are already tired from the continual processing of information, so when it comes to decision making, another energy consuming process, our abilities are significantly impaired. Which is why even simple decisions like what to have for lunch can seem overly challenging.
It isn’t just your decision making which could be suffering, with researchers suggesting that the stress caused by not being able to process information as quickly as it arrives, in combination with the pressure to respond to every email, text message, snapchat and phone call can lead to depletion and demoralization. And, due to your willpower utilising the same energy stores as decision making, the ability to remain productive and motivated can be weakened when there is an overload of information in your head.
It has even been suggested that the relentless torrent of data could be taking a toll on our memory and focus. According to neuropsychologist Dr Freundlich, by continually overloading our system by trying to store too much in working memory, the brain loses some of its processing power, and, by overloading the circuits, our brain doesn’t get the rest it needs, resulting in a deficit in both long-term and short-term memory. Numerous studies have also shown that when completing tasks, being interrupted, whether by an email, text message or phone call, means less information is absorbed, and less gets done. In fact, it has been shown that it can take between 10 and 24 minutes to return focus to the initial task being completed before an interruption.
The obvious question seems to be, what can you do to help alleviate the negative effects of information overload? A question which is incredibly important during a time when escaping from screens indefinitely just isn’t an option.
Simple solutions can be found by unplugging for a few hours, and by making sure you’re getting outside into fresh air, and engaging with real life. Perhaps obviously, the worst thing you can do when you’re overloaded with information is to digest more information. So when you’re able to take a break, make sure it’s away from any screens. Looking at memes or watching a mind-numbing reality TV show may seem like a break, and even though this type of information is easier for your brain to process, it’s still much more conducive to go offline altogether. Better yet, take a break away from any screens, and take a walk outside, no notifications, just you and the real world. A report by The British Journal of Sports Medicine has revealed physical benefits of taking a walk outside like improvements in blood pressure, reduction of body fat and reduced cholesterol. But physical wellbeing isn’t where it stops, with Stanford university finding that walking increased creative output by an average of 60 percent and professors of psychology at Iowa State University found that just 12 minutes of walking resulted in an increase in joviality, vigor, attentiveness and self-confidence.
It’s also important to remind yourself that you can’t process everything. For every possible question you may have, the internet will have more answers than you could ever possibly grasp. It’s important to remember this and to know when it’s time to hit the pause button, and when to eventually hit the stop button.
Our minds are not plates at an all you can eat buffet. We need to pay attention to the quantity and quality of information we consume, just as we would our food. We know not to consume too much junk food because of its impact on our bodies, we need to have the same outlook on what too much content can do to our minds.