How hard will it be to control our appetites for consuming information? Very hard, indeed.
Last year, I wrote about the rise of “information gluttony,” the virtual buffet of information consumed by members of our networked society.
The metaphor of gluttony is worth exploring further. One of the hallmarks of a rich society like ours is the amount of time put into consuming food, and resisting the consumption of food. A bookstore (the physical kind, with books written with ink on dead trees) typically has a large section dedicated to cookbooks, and another dedicated to diets.
Food diets, it turns out, are exactly 150 years old. The first diet book was published in 1863, when a formerly obese London undertaker named William Banting wrote his “Letter on Corpulence,” the original low-carb diet.
But isn’t gluttony as old as the bible’s seven deadly sins? Turns out the biblical definition of gluttony had little to do with overeating in the way we define it. Aside from nobility (who were a fraction of 1 percent of any society), overeating on a daily basis was no danger when the availability of food was so fragile and sporadic.
Gluttony in those days was a somewhat theoretical concept advocated by ascetic religious orders, which extended their philosophy of abstinence to their attitude toward food. Of the five definitions of gluttony proposed by Pope Gregory I, in about 600 A.D., only one addressed overeating. The other four were concerned with “eating before the time of meals, seeking delicacies, seeking to stimulate the palate with sauces and seasonings and taking food with too much eagerness.”
Kings may have gotten gout in the Middle Ages from overeating, but the temptation was not available to large segments of society until the Industrial Revolution was well underway, with railroads lowering the cost of transportation, and mass production of canned food and other modern technologies making an obsession with food a problem first for London, the capital of the Industrial Revolution. In the century and half since then, the temptation to “supersize it” has been extended to hundreds of million people globally.
Resisting the siren call of salty, fatty calories is difficult enough. Resisting the overflow of cheap information may be even harder for our human nature, according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of the recently published book “The Distraction Addiction.’’
According to Pang: “Information technologies are inescapable. They’re part of how you work, how you keep in touch, how your kids play, how you think and remember. They clamor for your time and crave your attention. They rely on the fact that your relationships with information technologies are deep and profound and reflect the entanglement with tools that defines us as a species. They promise to be helpful and supportive, to make you smarter and more efficient, but too often they leave you feeling busier, distracted and dull. Some say that the unavoidable price of being always on and connected is that one’s attention is perpetually fractured, the mind subject to endless demands and distractions. But that’s wrong. … Connection is inevitable. Distraction is a choice.”
Pang is not a cranky reactionary; he is a futurist with a Ph.D. in the history of science who consults on the impact of emerging technologies on organizations, work and business. He uses every social media imaginable, and enjoys competing with his son at “Halo.”
There is nothing new about revolutionary information technologies changing how people relate to information and even think. Pang describes how the invention of writing enabled a more objective, fact-based approach to the art of persuasion.
But the flood of information is new. Just as the rise of the Consumer Society over the past 150 years has led to an avalanche of convenient foods tempting us, we have also ridden a rising tide of convenient consumer information: daily newspapers, telephone, movies, radio, television, the Internet and now social networks.
The continuum of distraction has been enabled by a series of other new technologies, such as electrical lighting enabling convenient reading after sunset, and Wi-Fi and smartphone leaving us perpetually connected to the Internet.
Our future inevitably involves navigating through unlimited information. Like an overabundance of food, this is a good problem to have. But moderation takes time to grow. I myself fight indulging, whether in ice cream from Burlington, Vt., or sports updates from Bristol, Conn.
The brain is the addictive organ, not the stomach. If we have such difficulty controlling our food consumption, how hard will it be to control our information consumption, which mainlines directly to the brain?
About the author: Isaac Cheifetz is president of Open Technologies, a Minneapolis-based executive search and talent strategy consultancy for information and IT industries. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @isaaccheifetz