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Information obesity

Sep 20 2010 22:54 Simon Dingle

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YOU'd be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that the internet is a bad idea.

The information revolution has been led online and the internet has changed the way we work, play and interact forever. It is more important than the invention of the wheel - but it is having a profound effect on how we process information and not all of this is positive.

At the recent Gartner Symposium 2010 in Cape Town, Australian-born Tara Brabazon presented her take on how we learn and process information in the digital age.

Brabazon is professor of media at the University of Brighton in the UK. She says she is a teacher, however, and makes herself an example of the challenge that education should be. She insists on using an overhead projector for slides, and shouts and screams and pulls faces at her audience. The point she is trying to make is that learning should not be comfortable - it should provoke us.

When we're online, however, Brabazon does not believe that we are being challenged or surprised. Not enough, anyway. For the most part she believes we are just consuming the expected, in vast quantities - which is her basis for the term "information obesity".

Like cheap, mass-produced fast food, Brabazon says that information is being processed, cheapened and made available en masse online with little regard for quality.

Bad quality information, like fast food, is easy to find and consume. It's cheap and convenient - but it isn't always healthy. Brabazon describes Google as the "McDonalds drive-through of information" and says: "We cannot put words into Google that we do not know."

She does not blame Google for the problem, but rather challenges the information literacy of people using search engines. She isn't advocating a move away from online, but rather a review of how we use internet tools.
 
Brabazon is not alone in her study of the impact of quantitative information on our society. Author Nicholas Carr's recently published The Shallows is a study of the impact of modern information consumption and the effect it has on our brains.

Carr looks at fascinating experiments in brain activity of internet users and finds that our modern propensity for jumping around from one piece of information to the next as we skip from our email to news websites to Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere is damaging our ability to focus on and retain information.
 
Long-term memory is fed from short-term memory, but the latter has a limited capacity. As we overload our short-term memory with information from multiple sources, much of it is discarded; Carr likens this to trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble. Our brains simply can't handle the load.
 
So while we have access to more information than ever before, we are not retaining very much of it. The brain needs time to process new bits of information before they are stored.

In studies quoted by Carr, it has been found that when you focus on a single piece of writing, such as reading a book for example, more information is retained than if you read an article online while skipping between email and other sources of information. Having hyperlinks in online writing distracts readers and again damages retention.

Brabazon and Carr make definitive statements about how our brains learn and retain information. The conclusion is that while we have made vast progress in storing and sharing information with computers, our physical evolution has been left far behind.

The advice is simple: slow down, think about what you're doing and try not to do too many things at once. It sounds silly to suggest these things in a world where information moves at the speed of light and multitasking is a must - but your brain will thank you.

 - Fin24.com
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