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Guest column: Taming Information Overload By Opting Out

By on May 24, 2011No Comment

In the last 25 years, thanks to technological developments and the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle, the level of news that we are exposed to has risen dramatically.

Where exactly is the "opt out" button?

Today we have a plethora of options for keeping up with current events, with even old standards such as television, radio, and newspapers updated for the digital age and turned into nearly always accessible Internet offerings. Add to this mix 24-hour cable news, citizen blogger/journalists, Twitter, news aggregation Web sites, etc., and the sheer quantity of available news for consumption quickly becomes overwhelming. All of this information adds to the tidal wave of Information Overload, which lowers comprehension levels and impacts our ability to be productive.

The prevailing theory, as told to us by news organizations among others, is that the more we know, the better informed we are, and the better our decision making will be.

Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss novelist, has a dramatically different view on this. He believes that news is extremely damaging to us on multiple levels, ranging from our ability to understand complex arguments all the way through to our health. In a white paper entitled Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet, Dobelli lays out his case for giving up on the news completely as a way to tame Information Overload. His method may seem extreme to some, but his argument is persuasive, if maybe a bit naïve.

The premise of his argument is that news systematically misleads us, limits true understanding, is largely irrelevant, increases cognitive errors, is manipulative, and is often simply incorrect. The reasons for this all stem from the very nature of news as ephemeral and inherently flawed as a reliable information source. The business model of news favors the new over the relevant because that is what sells papers and attracts listeners and viewers, not because it is the best way to deliver detailed analysis and deep, thought out arguments.

Dobelli also points out that news is costly, both in terms of time spent consuming and in the recovery time it takes to refocus after being exposed to news. Further, it is likely that an individual will devote at lease some time, at a later date, thinking about some news item that is in all likelihood extremely irrelevant, breaking concentration once again.

Much in the same way that we now know that multitasking is damaging, Dobelli notes that “[T]he more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus.”

Dobelli builds a strong argument for giving up on news completely. He advocates relying on truly important news being filtered through friends and family whose judgment you trust and who know your interests. The other way that he recommends getting information is reading in-depth articles in respected journals, and reading books. By doing this, it is possible to avoid the many errors that are inadvertently inserted in a news story as it is breaking, and give the author or investigate journalist time to do proper research and place the news into context, where it is infinitely more valuable to building a real understanding of events.

As convincing as as Dobelli’s argument may be, the question remains: how realistic is it to follow this cold turkey approach? In many industries one is expected to be on top of the news and act accordingly, despite the obvious downside to acting without proper reflection and in-depth research. So, an open question to readers, would you be able to cut out the news and do your job? Or is it an unrealistic goal, despite the benefits such an information diet might bring you?

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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