Imagine that you're sitting quietly in a chair when suddenly thousands and thousands of ping pong balls start flying in the air around you. They bounce against your body and collide with each other, for some reason never falling to the ground. All around you is noise and chaos.
In a matter of seconds you would get up and try to find a way to escape all the ping pong balls, but everywhere you turn there they are. Such a scenario would not only be deeply disturbing but possibly life-threatening if it continued long enough.
Now imagine that each of those ping pong balls represents a piece of information. Some of the information might be helpful, some harmful. How do you tell the difference? How do you sift through all the chaos and find the things that matter and ignore the ones that don't?
This is an existential challenge that each of our limited brains faces every day. We are bombarded with information from all sides. Our brain is supposed to filter through the muck and find the gems while protecting us from the dangerous and trivial stuff. Where do I find food? What's healthy and what's not? How much and how often should I eat it? Is it poisonous or is it delicious? The types of food, information about food, and choices of food are higher than ever in history, but for some reason obesity is on the rise and ignorance about nutrition persists.
For most of history, information has been hard to come by. Originally, it was passed from generation to generation orally. Even after books arrived, very few people knew how to read and interpret the information within them. The rise in record-keeping and writing in the 20th century began a buildup that started to test the abilities of humans to manage it all.
I came of age at the dawn of computers, in the 1970's. Before then, finding information about anything involved tedious trips to the library and sifting through old magazines and encyclopedias. I've seen first-hand how the information explosion of the 80's and beyond has radically changed everything to do with information. Back then, we would have thought that more information is always a good thing. The more you know, the better your choices and decisions will be.
What few realized, however, was that the introduction of computers into the mix would result in an exponential growth of information that overwhelmed even the smartest among us. Information would double, then double again, then double repeatedly, until you reach the fast moving world of 2019, where 5 billion videos are watched on You Tube every day, 2 billion websites in existence, 1 million books published every year, and more television networks and streaming services than any one person can possibly keep up with.
The ping pong balls are now supercharged. They grow exponentially and often contradict each other. Sugar is bad. No, maybe fat is the culprit. What about carbs, glutens, and keto diets? There are differing opinions on everything, and different information to back up each opinion. Even worse, the largest and most powerful ping pong balls are loaded with deceptive information that influencers are aiming at us to make us buy their product, vote for their candidate, or believe them. On our end, we risk falling into the trap of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, where we only see the things we want to see.
What's a person to do? The most common solution to the information dilemma is to put up filters and screens, ignoring most of the information and latching onto the ones we think make the most sense. For this we often depend on parents and important communities to show us the way as to what information is good and what's bad. And because we are wired to want to feel good about our decisions, we create stories and mind maps to make sense of the information that we choose to let in. Information that doesn't conform to this framework is then easily ignored and we're able to navigate through the ping pong ball blizzard.
These filters, screens and mental structures are essential to survival in the information age. Without them we become lost and directionless. Fear of being lost explains why people cling more tightly to information when presented with conflicting facts. Psychologists call it the backlash effect. It's very painful to have to admit being wrong and go through the arduous work of reconstructing a new narrative that makes sense. That's why people avoid it at all costs. And that's why there's been a hardening of attitudes, partisanship and extremism with the meteoric rise of the information age. Simple answers are a godsend in the age of complexity and knowledge overload.
We're all going through a tough mental challenge and it's not going to get much easier as more information spews out. But we owe ourselves and the next generations more of an effort to make our stories better and more accurate. Here are three rules for the information age as we make this adjustment:
1- There's just too damned much information out there to expect to handle it all. It's impossible so don't even pretend to know everything. Trying to define reality is like shining a flashlight into a huge, darkened room. Curious humility is the only way to approach the mountains of data that stream through our lives. All we can hope for is for mental models that more closely approximate the world as it evolves. We have to be okay with a certain amount of uncertainty and be willing to ask questions and test theories to make our paradigms better.
2- If you want to persuade others that your way of seeing things is better than theirs, don't attack them. Attacking mental models stops meaningful dialogue and goes nowhere. We are all fumbling in the dark in one way or another and need to help each other out. Instead, if you truly think your ideas are better, be a shining example and people will ask you how you do it. Actual real-world results are ten times more convincing than personal attacks or flurries of ping pong balls.
3- Be more vigilant with your beliefs and mind maps. Harry Truman used to read five different newspapers every day to make sure he wasn't in a bubble. Don't be afraid to check things out with independent sources. You can't rely on one single person or bit of information- you have to reach out to two, three or more different sources to get a story and a picture that more accurately reflects reality. Bubbles are comforting, but easy to pop at the worst possible times.
The state of our discourse today is depressing. There's lots of certainty, hatred, and ignorance and precious little understanding. Part of that is my generation's fault. Baby boomers never knew what hit us. We've been more changed by this information deluge than everybody and more likely to cling to the flimsiest of stories. I have hope in the future generations. Our sorry example is not going unnoticed by Millennials and GenX. Young people today are much more comfortable with information. They've grown up surrounded by it and adapted. They are our best chance to heal our politics and commerce. Information can be a blessing, but we need something more to give our lives meaning. We are not creatures of data- we are living, breathing, and flawed humans trying to make our way in a confusing world. We need each other to keep us sane.