How can we manage the flood of information? Experts recommend: Turn off push messages and avoid multitasking.
If the written word were like good wine, Robert Cottrell would be a celebrated sommelier. And not just because the former Moscow correspondent of the "Financial Times" selects the best journalistic pieces (from his point of view) for his newsletter "The Browser" every day.
It's more the way he determines the quality of a given article beforehand. He feels his way forward in small sips, routinely, but always ready to be surprised. Most of it he spits out again. Cottrell only treats himself to a whole glass of the really fine wines, as it were.
If you believe U.S. technology expert Clay Johnson, author of the book "The Information Diet," then our consumption of information is similar to the way we deal with food. However, very few people do it the way gourmet Robert Cottrell does. Instead, they carelessly and hastily stuff one snack after another into their mouths – without regard for quality or their own feeling of hunger. The main thing is that it tastes good and satisfies. At least in the short term.
And while the junk food of the food industry has created a society of overweight people and heart disease, the push messages of the digital information industry are also said to endanger our health. According to Johnson, we all need a radical information diet.
The fear of information overload
On the one hand, these fears are not new. For as long as there have been media, cultural critics have seen the shadows of social decline looming on the horizon with every new development. Even the ancient philosopher Plato feared that the proliferation of writing would turn his contemporaries into mindless beings without any memory. After all, they would be able to read the necessary information at any time in the future, for heaven's sake.
Almost as old is the fear that too much information could be harmful to us. And yet the fear of an "information overload," a flood of information that we can no longer cope with, has become even louder in recent years. Scientifically, this question has not yet been clearly resolved. However, studies suggest that for many people it is increasingly burdensome to draw from the countless and never-ending sources of information on the Internet.
Enthusiasm about the omnipresence of knowledge then gives way to frustration about not being able to keep up. There is a constant fear of missing out on something on the Internet, with a new headline constantly beckoning with the prospect of breaking news. The satisfaction of knowing the most important news of the day thanks to the daily newspaper or the eight o'clock news no longer exists in a world of constant updates.
"When people feel they can no longer process information adequately, it can cause stress, confusion and anxiety," Morten Skovsgaard (University of Odense) and Kim Andersen (University of Gothenburg) report.
"Our Stone Age brains simply haven't adapted to our digital environment yet," neuroscientist and author Maren Urner says. Prehistoric reflexes, for example, lead us to process negative things more emotionally and intensively than positive ones. And this, she says, is fatal – especially in the daily stream of news. "We can't wean our brains off such impulses," she says. "But that doesn't mean we can't learn to deal better with the daily flood of information." The only question is: How can we do that?
There is no formula for success
Robert Cottrell seems to have mastered this challenge in a remarkable way. By his own account, the newsletter curator sifts through about 1,000 articles every day in search of the five best pieces – and he does it without any stress or feeling like he's losing track of the big picture in this massive amount of information.
"I simply consider myself someone who looks for joy, surprise and pleasure – and after all, you can never get enough of that," he says. "I even wish, therefore, that I were exposed to a constant flood of pleasure."
This could be seen as a British understatement. But research proves Cottrell right: according to a study by psychologists led by Josephine Schmitt from the Center for Advanced Internet Studies in Bochum, Germany, Internet users who have developed a conscious strategy for obtaining information online seem to suffer particularly little from the flood of information.
In an online survey, the authors asked around 400 people about their news consumption. They wanted to know, for example, how often, where and why the participants consumed news on the Internet, how they accessed the information, and whether they showed signs of "information overload." They concluded, there is no one recipe that works for everyone.
Develop your own strategies
Rather, the authors believe that with a suitable strategy, one does not simply surrender passively to the flow of information, but has the ability to obtain desired information in a targeted and effective manner. There is, however, one taboo: Respondents who relied primarily on push messages felt particularly often overwhelmed by the daily flood of information. Cottrell looks for articles that promise him actual added value. "With every article, I ask myself whether I would still find it interesting a year from now."
This goal of one's own information consumption can be defined individually. Distraction or entertainment are also legitimate motivations – it's just important to be clear about what goal you're pursuing. Someone who was originally looking for literature for his master's thesis and finds himself in front of the screen after a three-hour blind date with the YouTube algorithm is more likely to be frustrated than someone who has spent their time on the video platform in a more targeted manner.
In Cottrell's case, this approach leads to another lesson: With the exception of the morning reading of the "New York Times," daily news is virtually absent from his information diet – after all, news promise no sustainable added value by definition.
Representatives of the “news avoidance strategy” have therefore been advocating for a complete renunciation of news for quite some time. Their arguments: While a flood of catastrophic events washes into our living rooms every day, dissatisfaction grows along with the feeling of powerlessness. In addition, a large part of the news is completely irrelevant to one's own life.
Robert Cottrell would agree with this in principle. For himself, however, he has established a less radical routine that nevertheless guarantees him the highest possible relevance. He has compiled a long but limited list of ingredients for his daily menu from hundreds of RSS feeds and newsletters. On the one hand, this increases the likelihood of being served high-quality content, while on the other, the RSS reader minimizes the risk of being distracted.
"So at first, I start by reading everything," Cottrell says. "But as soon as I even begin to lose interest, I stop again." Usually, he says, that's the case after the headline, if it's another rather newsy piece. He also places high demands on the first paragraph. "Journalists do everything they can to convince people of the relevance of the piece at the beginning. So if the beginning is already no good, there's very little chance it will be any better after that."
You need the ability to self-reflect
From Cottrell's perspective, this may all sound simplistic and obvious. For most people, however, it is not. That's largely because, as a professional reader, the longtime journalist has trained special skills that researchers call metacognition. Put simply, it's about being able to think about one's own thinking – which, according to many experts, is crucial for survival in the digital information age.
Gerhard Lauer, Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Basel, is also convinced of this. "Metacognition is needed above all to know which reading mode is appropriate for which reading." In this context, he says, the concept of reading should be broadly defined – whether you're reading push messages, tweets, news articles or infographics. The crucial questions are: What kind of text am I looking at? How much attention do I need to pay to it? Which of the information do I really need – and what's the fastest way to get it?
"It makes a difference whether I want to immerse myself in a novel or focus on a question that requires me to scan many different articles and publications," Lauer writes in his book "Reading in the Digital Age."
Different text forms should be enjoyed like individual courses from an á la carte menu – jumbling everything up makes it difficult to absorb information. "When I'm working on a scientific text, self-isolation is quite important," says the researcher. In addition, he uses social networks exclusively for professional purposes in order to get to the content that is relevant to him there without distractions.
Maren Urner has written an entire book about how we can improve these metacognitive skills and find ways out of the digital overload ("Ending the Daily Armageddon"). Among other things, she advocates laying the foundation for a healthy and critical approach to information as early as elementary school.
But she also applies strategies in her daily media consumption to counteract the weaknesses of our Stone Age brains. "In social contexts and when reading challenging texts, I leave the smartphone in my pocket completely," Urner says. "Multitasking is an illusion, and any distraction has been shown to cause our attention to return to the original activity only after a long delay or not at all." She has also disabled all push messages – even those from her emails.
Robert Cottrell, meanwhile, has reached his limit rather involuntarily. More is simply not possible – although it appears he still hasn't satisfied his appetite for finding good writing. That's why he is working on creating an assistant for himself in the form of an artificial intelligence. He is currently using machine learning to train a neural network that should be able to recognize suitable articles and make a preselection in the future.
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