The Junkformation Age. Is the Internet Making Us Lazy? 

September 10, 2012 

Is the abundance of information available to us thanks to the internet a valuable addition to our lives or is it making us lazy? Are we entering an era where laziness and "buzz worthy" data rules the day, versus critical thinking and scholarly debate? For example, I can sit at my desk, and rather than relying on my own creativity or problem solving skills, a quick search will show me thousands of options of how other people dealt with "x".

I need to know some fact, tidbit, or find an image that conveys my thoughts? A quick trip to Google will offer up a limitless bounty of options to sort through. Why stare at a blank canvas when I can sort through all these existing creations? Surely even if I need to come up with my own idea, one of these options will give me some direction, inspiration or launching pad!

Note - even this blog post was inspired by this very insightful post by Owen Shifflett titled "Consumption: How Inspiration Killed, Then Ate, Creativity."

I no longer remember any phone numbers, they are all stored in my iPhone. In fact, I don't need to remember any important bits of information because they are all recorded in my password protected iPhone app so I am never without them. Now that my mind is free of worrying about recalling that information, I also don't need to worry about spelling. My software auto corrects for me as I type. Brilliant - now I can focus on only my ideas! Even with my ideas, I don't really have to worry about thinking them out, outlining them, organizing them, finding references, rewriting anything - because it's all going out at 140 characters or less on my Twitter feed, or being jotted down as notes for short blog posts in Evernote. Half the time it's a Re-Tweet or Copy / Paste of someone else's idea.

All this free time for my brain has resulted in a somewhat incessant need to feed it small bits of satisfying yet inconsequential data.

I check my Facebook app first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. During television shows (which often have feeds of secondary information rolling across the bottom of the screen) I surf on my iPad, checking Twitter, email and occasionally clicking on a Zappos ad custom served up for me based on my searching tendencies. I've downloaded about 50 samples of ebooks, but can't find the time to read them so I can find out if I want to buy the book.

I find an article interesting and as soon as I begin reading it, a link takes me off to another related article, or I think I need to Tweet this or email it to someone, or I decide I need music to really enjoy this article so I launch Pandora and then need to figure out which station to listen to. Then my email alerts me to a new potential client email (something I definitely should give my uninterrupted attention to). This email is for a website redesign so I instantly launch the current site, and do a search in Twitter for the client name to see if there's any buzz. As I start to read through the email or the RFP, while scanning the website and the Twitter results, I think about another site I saw recently that was similar to the prospective client's site so I pull that up in another tab. As I do this I get an instant message from a co-worker about lunch. LUNCH! I'm hungry! I pull up the restaurant's website to pick something out, and figure this is a good time to check up on funny videos on YouTube.

I've noticed recently that I will find myself scanning my application icons (on my computer, iPhone or iPad) searching for another app, site, or feed to serve me something new.

News? Check. Friends and family? Check. Weather? Check. Horoscope? Nah I'll save that for later. Blogs? Sure - but which ones? Email? Check - every five minutes. I feel like a junkie for meaningless information. It's a never ending stream and as I keep dipping into it to satisfy this craving, I feel my brain getting fat and lazy.

Perhaps my thyroid is out of whack? I should Google that. Ooooh - those symptoms do sound like me. Maybe I have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder? Let me read some recent studies. Wow I didn't know Madonna had it too. And I didn't know Madonna was doing another tour - maybe I should get tickets, I wonder how much they are? Darn - they aren't available yet. Back to me. Maybe I had too much sugar for breakfast? Perhaps I need a vacation? A drink? A new car? Some new music? An evening out for a movie? Ooooh - I have the best app to see what's playing nearby. And there I go again.

You get the point. It reminds me of how I felt when I quit smoking.

I would have these little "pings" that would go off, when my body wanted its next dose of nicotine.

I suspect I have now become addicted to small doses of somewhat inconsequential or trivial information. These bits of data often make me feel good, like seeing pictures of my family and friends, or laughing at a funny blooper, but they really don't serve much more than a momentary dose of entertainment or amusement.

So how do we correct this cultural transformation that is affecting so many of us, turning us into a society with limited attention spans and a constant craving for high impact, easily digestible, worthless bits of information? Have we become a society of not only fast food consumers but fast information consumers as well? What happens when we need to sit down and focus? Solve problems never dealt with before? Communicate about challenging issues that require more than 140 characters?

What if Lindsay Lohan getting out of jail was not breaking news on CNN?

I don't have the answers, but I do see the problems, and I see and feel them clearly in myself. I will admit I'm trying to force myself to only focus on one thing at a time, for more than just a few minutes, but it is challenging. I even find having long involved conversations with people less likely than they once were. I am more than concerned about what is happening to me, and to others. And what about children growing up surrounded by it? I remember a time when critical thinking, problem solving, writing skills, debate - it was a very important part of my education process. But what about today's 15 year old? Do they even know what they are missing?

Now don't get me wrong, I think the Internet has provided a lot of benefits, heck it's provided me with a job, and I agree with much of what Clay Shirky sets out to prove in his recent book Cognitive Surplus, that all this time on our hands can be collected and used for good, a worthy example being wikipedia.
But honestly, how long will the integrity of things like wikipedia hold up if we continue to degrade the academic basis and focus of our society with this constant bombardment of distraction and junk?

I fear we will all end up like the fat human blobs portrayed in Wall-E or the people depicted in Idiocracy. How quickly do we forget about disasters like Katrina or corporate crimes like the recent BP spill? Why do we get so bored listening to educated people discuss relevant topics and switch instead to biased one-sided newscasters intent on doing nothing but creating animosity? How easily we have rolled over and accepted a war in Iraq completely based on WMDs and yet, no WMD existed? Were those things so easy to forget about or overlook because it felt so much better and easier to look at this lady falling out of a grape crushing barrel or these people talking about leprechauns

I suppose it's more fun (and easier) to laugh than to debate, research or worry.

However, with all these streams turned on full blast with all these opinions, shows, videos, blogs, reports, footage, tweets, commentaries, etc. where does it stop and where does valuable discourse occur? It's up to us to fight against this barrage of junkformation and keep our minds fit, healthy and happy. I'm starting by trying to read more books vs. blog posts, read scholars vs. pop-academics, have healthy debate with my friends and family and make a concerted effort to "tune out" and "turn off" the junk streams that feed my habit.

I am hoping in their absence some original and interesting thoughts, ideas or creations of my own just might emerge - we will see. What do you think? Is the Internet making you lazy? Are the pros outweighing the cons? Were you able to get through this whole blog post or did you just skim it? Do share.