The start of the year is a good time to ‘clear the decks’ and cleanup excess stuff cluttering my shelves, home, workspace and mind. I began by reducing my clippings of websites/articles stored in Evernote from 6500 notes down to 3800. I still have some work to do to prune it right down to only the essential reference material I need to keep.
Starting back at work today I was confronted with an overflowing tray of paper that needs sorting, junk on my computer desktop, and a very full downloads folder. A common theme of all this stuff I have accumulated is that at the time of saving it I had some intention of reading it. Unfortunately I don’t have time to read everything.
I love information, it fascinates me to learn new facts, ideas or tips on how to do something better. When I was a kid the primary source of information was from books. I lived in a small country town with a small public library and few shops selling books. In this setting it was achievable to have read all the books available that interested me, and I did just that. It was possible to know the limits of the information available in my small world.
Now it is not possible to know the limits of information available to me with an internet connection. Yet I still have an information scarcity mindset. This belief causes me to hold on to sources of information despite understanding that by the time I get around to reading it that information is likely to be outdated. This is a costly mistake.
The thousands of pdfs stored on my computer are not only taking up bytes, they take up mental space and each causes a mild stress by being unread.
An Information Flood
Information is no longer scarce, we are flooded by it. In a flood the problem in not getting enough water, the real problem is keeping excess water out. Added to having too much water is the issue of it being dirty. There is water pouring in all over the place but it is so contaminated with filth that it is unusable, even hazardous. This is the situation we are now in with information.
Social media channels are like sewers, plenty of content running through them but little of true use to us. If I jump into the Twitter or Facebook feed I’m carried along in the torrent but all it does is waste my time. News websites are not much better, actual news stories are so similar to click bait that it can be tricky differentiating the two.
Search engines such as Google or Bing are not reliable conduits of clean information. They are like using the same bucket for bailing out flood water and collecting drinking water, cross contamination is constantly occurring.
To avoid the negative effects of misinformation we need to filter our sources. A clean stream can easily be muddied so I have to consciously filter all incoming sources, picking out what is helpful and leaving behind the trash. I do seek out good curators but what is considered useful to that person may not be relevant to me.
The ability to efficiently filter information, both from the flood and also from reliable sources, requires training. Fortunately my work and education have trained me reasonably well. Perhaps this is going to be the primary benefit of having a degree, learning how to identify reliable sources and developing critical thinking skills to discern what is most true.
In our society the scientific method and peer-review are held to be the best information filters. Working at a university I have ready access to such information but even that can go stale and outdated if stored too long.
Books used to be a great way to store and retrieve information, in some cases they still are. These days so much new information is being generated and it changes so fast that storing information is hardly with the trouble. Assuming I have internet access, all I need is the information required to go about my daily life and work. Holding on to more than that comes at a cost and it will be quickly outdated so unless what I need is historical records there is no point keeping old stuff. The obvious exceptions are photographs and family records.
So back to my original problem, I am flooded with information, I don’t need more and don’t need to keep it all. If I need to know something I can easily look it up. The cost of keeping what I’m not actively using is higher than the small effort required to find anything I want to know.
Rest in the Sun
What most of us need these days is a chance to ‘dry out’, an opportunity to escape the flood and catch our breath. This is related to my goal of reading books rather than blogs this year. I want to stem the tide of incoming information and clear out all the stuff I’m not able to keep up with. This should enable my mind to quieten down, think more clearly and create.