Sunday, January 8, 2017

Down the Rabbit Hole: Greetings from a state of extreme information overload

This morning, I innocently checked the news. Then I disappeared down the rabbit hole. One click following another, driven by the idea that around the next bend I would arrive at some kind of a lasting understanding that would outlive today.

When I realized I was in full information reading free fall, I started writing this blog post, just to record what was happening.

To reconstruct the beginning of the experience, I asked myself what was the lead story on The Guardian when I opened it this morning.

Do I really remember what happened two hours ago? First, I thought no. Then, I remembered it was something about the shooting in Fort Lauderdale. But what? The shooter was unhappy in some way. Let me go back to check, but whoops in the meantime, there is a fully different lead story...I can't go back to where I was...maybe Fort Lauderdale was not so important after all.

Actually, no don't want to be reading about Fort Lauderdale. I land in Florida airports rather frequently and I don't need to be creating anxiety. Shouldn't be reading that one.

Spent some time trying to get back to see the same "first page" that I saw this morning...clock ticking. It appeared not to be possible.

What kind of insight will I arrive at that will outlive today?

This morning became this afternoon as I dove into certain column with the headline: "Moral panic over fake news hides the real enemy – the digital giants"

Hmmm. What exactly is "moral panic"?

I read this:

Interesting. We learn:

"Moral panic has been defined as a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is/are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place."

However, that gets us nowhere on what "Moral panic over fake news hides the real enemy – the digital giants" is going to actually tell us. If there is a fear, it is related to the fact that we have no way of estimating an objective threat, and by this definition can't be moral panic.

OK. Title doesn't make sense. Let's click anyway. Maybe this article will allow me to move forward on one of my more dominant streams of thoughts these days: The discourse on news and news reading behavior seems to assume that people have an unlimited amount of time and attention resources to consume news in a given day. How do we achieve a healthy and balanced news diet, if we don't have countless hours to spend?

This stream of thought has led me to ask the question if the time that we are spent worrying about "fake news" should be spent thinking about something else. And the related question: "What is that something?" and "Is the problem with fake news actually not that it is fake but that it is simply consuming time that we should be spending doing other things?"

So I click. Falling, falling. The piece is interesting, but not what I expected.

Yet I am reading ideas that I don't recall encountering before in such a form. I keep reading. Second to last paragraph is:

"The only solution to the problem of fake news that neither misdiagnoses the problem nor overpowers the elites is to completely rethink the fundamentals of digital capitalism. We need to make online advertising – and its destructive click-and-share drive – less central to how we live, work and communicate. At the same time, we need to delegate more decision-making power to citizens – rather than the easily corruptible experts and venal corporations."

But how much does the author really know about the forces at play within the larger context that gives rise to online advertising? If there is going to be a "rethinking" there need to be "rethinkers" who are positioned to make changes. This piece seems to be implying that those "rethinkers" exist: but can they exert the required influence?

OK. I could fall forever. I am just going to dig a bit more deeply into this one article, and then I am going to stop and do something else.

Let's start with remembering exactly does "venal" mean again? Looked that up. "Open to bribery". Right. OK.

To understand who the author might consider to be the "rethinkers", let's have a look at where the author is coming from, specifically, what he might know about neuroscience and psychology, i.e., information addiction and confirmation bias, information literacy, and the science of complex systems. I started out by looking at the profile page of the author, here:

which links to his blog here:

Which doesn't give me a blog, but rather a portal:

what is going on?

I decide to read all of the comments to see if anyone else had this problem.

Whew. Lot's of opinions there. Pretty interesting discussion. One comment states "We have norm of unexamined adoption". That's an interesting observation: How did those norms get formed in the first place? If we can figure that out, then we can maybe take some action there.

At least two people commenting are pointing to the need for helping people develop critical thinking thinking skills and the ability to verify information. That's another of my streams of thought lately: how to promote the practice of evaluating information sources, for example, with the CAARP test.

No one seems to be bothered by the broken link in the author profile of the author of the piece. Usually a broken link would point to a poorly maintained, and potentially less authoritative source. But this is The Guardian! Maybe I am seeing things?

Then I spend some time on The Guardian website trying to figure out where to report a broken link. Lots of opportunities for suggesting corrections to content, and for securely passing The Guardian information. Good to see. However, none for just saying, "Hey, the link is bad".

OK. Time to take action. I posted the comment:

"Does anyone else find that the link to Morozov's Net Effect blog at the top of his Guardian profile page ( doesn't seem to really lead to the blog? It seems like the The Guardian made a mistake, and that the link should be directing us here: Uncertainty about this link is hindering me in digging into the wider context of this piece."

Time passes.

Worrying that that comment will be interpreted as being negative about the piece. I'm not negative, just trying to get to the bottom of what the lasting message is for me.

Time passes.

I'm spending time on trying to understand why research on dopamine and information seeking seems to have fallen silent in the mainstream press after 2012, and on wondering why there is not a good website to explain complex systems. We need to rely on Wikipedia for so many of the related concepts like "preferential attachment" and "emergence".

Why in the world does my Morozov piece feature one picture of Putin and the top and one picture of Trump in the middle? It is not about either of them. I don't think Morozov chose those.

I am still falling...with also a feeling of having been sucked in.

Time passes.

This is about one piece that I read in the newspaper! I'm trying to form an opinion about one single opinion piece. What if I had tried to read the other ones as well? What if I were doing any serious fact checking?

Greetings from a state of extreme information overload.

Time passes.

Is the conclusion that the limits our time will ultimately always win? That we will drown in a state of information overload because it requires an afternoon to evaluate a single opinion piece?

I am not so sure. In this case, I am planning to take action on my conclusions regarding the article and the things that the people are saying in the comments. As an information retrieval researcher, a crisis in information quality is a crisis at the core of our research field. As an instructor of a freshman information science course I need to be able to describe best practices in information and consumption behavior.

There is a lot riding on this one article for me.

In that respect, it is not wasted time.

A arrive at the bottom of with a loud bump.

So the conclusion is, yes, our time is limited. We can't spend an entire afternoon examining everything that we read. The most important information is the information that we take action on. We need to seek out that information, and evaluate the heck out of it.

If we are not planning to take action, read, but leave the information in suspended animation. For example, the article on Fort Lauderdale. Or: there is now an article about the Mob on the front page of the New York Times. I choose not to subject these to scrutiny, but neither will I take any action (including sharing those articles) on the basis of what I read.

Looking at the length of this post, another obvious conclusion is that people should set aside more time for finding and consuming information. The information available online initially looks "free", but really we need to also count the price of our time. Information without verification is useless.

Setting aside time requires asking the question, "What did we lose because we didn't choose to do something else instead?"In short, how can we more tightly link reading the news to tradeoffs and to tangible value?

Now what about this little bottle?

Alice drink me