Why Less Is More When It Comes To Information

I’ve been online since 1989 when I bought my first PC complete with a 2400 baud modem and dialed into a local online bulletin board. At that time in my life I was an information freak, reading several newspapers a day then exploring the exploding online universe at night. On a 2 day train trip across Tanzania in 1995 I was glued to my shortwave radio, catching the news on the BBC and Voice of America. As the Internet evolved I evolved with it, moving my information gathering online. For an information freak the Internet was perfect. Or so I thought.

But almost 30 years later the Internet is a cacophony, full of vacuous clickbait with multiple video streams and content loading at different rates that I get a headache simply checking the weather an onerous and painful task, a daily bombardment of useless information with an incredibly low signal to noise ratio. In his 2012 book Anti-Fragile, The Black Swan author and self-proclaimed flaneur Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses the danger of information overload. He states, “The more frequently you look at the data, the more noise you are disproportionately likely to get.” 

“Say you look at information on a yearly basis,” he writes. “Assume further that for what you are observing, at a yearly frequency, the ratio of signal to noise is about one to one (half noise, half signal)… This ratio is what you get from yearly observations. But if you look at the very same data on a daily basis, the composition would change to 95 percent noise, 5 percent signal. And if you observe data on an hourly basis, as people immersed in the news and market price variations do, the split becomes 99.5% noise to 0.5% signal. This is two hundred times more noise than signal.” He notes, “(W)e are not made to understand the point, so we overreact emotionally to noise. The best solution is to only look at very large changes in data or conditions, never at small ones,” and suggests that we shouldn’t worry about missing out on important information because it has a way to reach us.

Writer and futurist Richard Watson agrees. In an interview with Quartz writer Ephrat Livni Watson provides a ten point method for filtering out the noise in daily life to leave the signal. This includes traveling, cultivating friendships with remarkable people you trust, and going dark – unplugging from the online world.

30 years on I have found myself unintentionally doing several of Watson’s recommendations. I’m traveling abroad more and whenever I do I make it a point to ignore all the news, not an easy task while in most American airports where CNN is on TV screens, even broadcasting into the men’s restrooms at some locales. Two weeks ago I was in Spain and during the entire 9 day trip and for 5 days afterwards I avoided all news. Did I miss anything important? Apparently not as far as I can tell.

Social media is the worst and getting off it is number 9 on Watson’s list. I deleted my personal Facebook account three years ago and of my 70 or so “friends” I’ve communicated by phone or email with three. What did I miss? A lot of food, kid and pet posts as well as humble-bragging posts from abroad. And a ton of Leftist propaganda particularly of the anti-Trump variety. Twitter is the worst of the worst. Every tweet is a reminder of how inconsequential today’s most famous people are in the expanse of History. Twitter seems increasingly like acceptable public masturbation but unlike the real thing makes a big mess that’s more difficult to clean up for some.

Lastly I’ve given up my Kindle and am back to reading real books that I can mark up with highlighter and pen – which is hard to do to a new hardback like Taleb’s Skin in the Game released just last month. It’s the same problem I had 30 years ago: hardbacks seem almost sacred while anything goes in a paperback. I realized I had a problem with reading on a Kindle when I tried purchasing a book for it and it warned me that I had already read it – which I had, but had completely forgotten. Studies have shown that comprehension is higher for books than e-readers and screens.

In a sense the hippie activist Timothy Leary was two-thirds right when he advocated everyone “turn on, tune in, drop out.” By turning off screens and dropping out of the online world it’s much easier to tune in to what matters in the world.

And so was Jesus Jones.