Is the information overload damaging our brains and our ability to think?

Posted in: Bloggery

Do you agree that we are hooked on emails, texts and tweets?  How do you deal with information overload?

You might recall that last month I had just read Sennet’s book “The Corrosion of Character” and my blog for that month drew heavily from that source. It seems that a fair bit of my reading recently has been about what the big themes – globalization, technology, and rapid change – are doing to us: the increasing array of challenges we navigate whilst preserving a confident sense of self.

Recently I have just finished another book which captured my interest.  “Future Minds” by Richard Watson[1]  This book is about information technology’s impact on the way we think and learn. It covers computers, mobile phones, the internet, social networking, emails, Google, twitter, information flows, speed of communications, data versus intelligence, and being smart versus wise.

His central thesis is that in the fast paced world of digital overload, we are increasingly unable to engage in deep thinking. Thinking which is “rigorous, focused, deliberate, considered, independent, original, imaginative, broad, wide, calm, relaxed, attentive, contemplative and reflective.” (P3 – 4).

He believes that our attention and our relationships are getting atomized. The digital age and information overload is causing society is becoming impatient, isolated and detached from reality.  A society that has plenty of answers but very few questions.

A culture of rapid response plus ease of access, he argues, leads to a state of constant partial stupidity and multi-tasking mayhem. He asserts that “people are generally in a rush online and want to extract information or ‘value’ as quickly as possible.  When working offline (i.e. reading hard copy), in contrast, “we tend to have a calmer mindset and, as a result, our imagination is more engaged.” (P 37)

Frenetic thinking, where we are aware of what we are doing but we are not thinking deeply about how or why we are doing it, is undermining deep reflective thinking, and some loss of imagination and creativity.

My reactions are mixed. Watson articulates very well my half-formed concerns about the impact of our increasingly, digital world. But I am not sure he is altogether accurate in laying the losses he identifies entirely at the door of the “the digital age”.  I think there is more to it.

I do think this is a bone worth chewing on, but at the same time I wonder about the role of tabloid journalism? The paucity of political leadership? Changes in public education? These factors may also be contributing to some loss in reflective abilities.

At the very end Watson comes to a reasonable conclusion.  “I think the jury is still very much out on whether the invasion of digital machines into our everyday lives is having serious effects on our minds.  On one level, we are getting smarter.  Information is more widely available and we are getting clever about finding it.  On the other hand, there is evidence that deep, reflective thinking is seriously threatened.” (P168)

Some years ago leaders in education our society recognized that schools needed to develop the competencies associated with emotional intelligence in young people, as well as addressing literacy and numeracy.  Maybe we will see the same leaders addressing the short attention spans and other emerging symptoms of the digital age which Watson identifies.

My main takeaway for the work we do here it to encourage people to occasionally isolate themselves from technology: to experience a bit more of the outdoors, turn off mobile phones whilst on holiday or just once in a while, unsubscribe from a few email newsletters and become “blessedly disconnected.” Some of the questions we ask of individuals are designed to create some reflection.  Sometimes the event of a career transition itself involves disconnection from the information overload coming from organizations and expectations surrounding “keeping connected”. This is no bad thing.

[1]Future Minds”, Richard Watson, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010