Am I actually going to read this?

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of information despite understanding that by the time I get around to reading it that information is likely to be outdated.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.

Filters

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.

Storage

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.

Limited edition

Do limits annoy you? Do you wish you had more money, time, brains or beauty? Consider that perhaps limits on our lives may serve a good purpose.

God sets the limits for all things. He sets limits for the sea so it does not encroach upon the land. He sets the times and seasons, He determines the orbits of stars and planets. He sets the length of life for all people and the times of rulers and kings.

God also limits each of us, setting the place where we will be born, the parents we will have, and the abilities we will inherit.

I seem to spend much of my life kicking against the limits within which my life has been placed. I’m not entirely sure what I am seeking to achieve, but often I push against the limited time available to me, burning through the quiet hours of my nights in the eerie glow of a computer display.  I hungrily read and consume from the fire-hose of information now available through the internet.

Oddly, my ‘problem’ is no longer the difficulty of locating information as it was a decade ago, now I have difficulty saying “enough”. I have information obesity (it is even a problem for academics).

Unfortunately most of what passes as ‘information’ is really just trivial. In fact, the best most popular blogs, websites, news outlets and social media sites are primarily experts in entertainment and how to hold a human being’s attention in such a way as to induce clicks, page views or divulging of credit card details.

This evening I read a book instead of opening the lid of the laptop. It felt good, undistracted, a cohesive argument to follow and well crafted words – quality workmanship. I need to read more books and browse the internet less. There is good reason for calling it ‘browsing’ or ‘surfing’ – both capture the skimming, superficial nature of how we interact with the web.

God created me with limits. I need to respect them and use the limited time I have wisely.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:15–17 ESV)


(A re-post from the archives)
Image: iStock