Can Humans Cope with Information Overload? Tyler Cowen & John Freeman Join the Debate

by on August 23, 2009 · 605 comments

I recently finished Tyler Cowen’s latest book, Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.  Like everything he writes, this book is worth reading and it will be of interest to those who follow technology policy debates since Cowen makes a passionate case for “Internet optimism” in the face of recent criticisms of the Internet and the Information Age in general.

Cowen is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University and the co-author, along with Alex Tabarrok, of the wonderful blog.  And if you haven’t read Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture, stop what you’re doing and go get yourself a copy right now. Brilliant book.  Compared to that book, Create Your Own Economy is a difficult book to summarize.  Seriously, this book is all over the place… but in a good way.  Even though it sometimes feels like “Tyler’s Miscellaneous Ramblings,” those ramblings will keep you engaged and entertained.  Cord Blomquist did a pretty good job of summarizing the general themes of the book in this post two months ago when he noted that, “despite cultural reflexes that would have us do otherwise, we should embrace… new technologies as means to be more selective about what information we absorb and therefore welcome the increased volume of bytes into our lives.  In his new book, [Cowen] explores technology as a vehicle to help you determine what you really value, not a series of a email-powered torture devices.”  That’s a pretty good summation, but the book is about much more than that.

Instead of a full-blown review, I want to focus on some of passages from Cowen’s book about coping with information overload, which I think readers here might find of interest. In doing so, I will contrast Cowen’s views with those of John Freeman, who just penned “A Manifesto for Slow Communication” in The Wall Street Journal. As we will see, Cowen and Freeman’s differences exemplify the heated ongoing debate taking place among “Internet optimists &  pessimists,” which I have discussed here many times before.  

My favorite chapter of Cowen’s book is entitled, “Why Modern Culture is Like Marriage, In All Its Glory.”  In it, Cowen takes on those who claim citizens are now being overwhelmed by a deluge of digital information, or are suffering from “information overload.”  In particular, Cowen addresses criticisms such as those leveled by social critics like Nick Carr, who penned a widely-read Atlantic article last year entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  Cowen responds:

[Carr] missed how people can construct wisdom — and long-term dramatic interest in their own self-education–from accumulating, collecting, and ordering small bits of information. What we’re growing impatient with is bits that are fed to us and that we really do not want.

Contrary to Carr, we still have a long attention span when it comes to the broader picture, and if anything Google lengthens our attention span by allowing us to follow the same story over many years’ time. (p. 54)

Additionally, Cowen points out, search tools like Google and other information gathering and processing technologies actually “lengthens our attention spans in another way, namely by allowing greater specialization of knowledge”:

We don’t have to spend as much time looking up various facts and we can focus on the particular areas of interest, if only because general knowledge is so readily available.  It’s never been easier to wrap yourself up in a long-term intellectual project, yet without losing touch with the world around you.

As for information overload, it is you who chooses how much “stuff” you want to experience and how many small bits you want to put together. […]  The quantity of information coming our way has exploded, but so has the quality of our filters. (p. 55)

This is an important point and one made previously by Chris Anderson in The Long Tail. I was a bit surprised that Cowen failed to reference him on this point.  Anderson defined filters as “the catch-all phrase for recommendations and all the other tools that help you find quality in the Long Tail” and noted that “these technologies and services sift through a vast array of choices to present you with the ones that are most right for you.” (p. 108 of 2006 hardback edition)  “The job of filters is to screen out [the] noise” (p. 115) or all the information clutter (crap?) that is out there.

Cowen argues that the filtering technologies are getting better at this sifting and processing process, but so too are humans, he says.  The key to this, he argues, is that we are getting better are “ordering” information.  And something real exciting (other might say scary!) is happening to us:

Fundamentally the relationship between human minds and human cultures is changing. … There is quite literally a new plane for organizing human thoughts and feelings and we are jumping on these opportunities at an unprecedented pace.  (p. 9)  […]

For a typical person, you encounter the web, and you feel overwhelmed, but you figure out how to impose some local coherence in your own way, if only by using Google search or going to your “favorite places” bookmarks.  You resort to some mental ordering, usually with the aid of technology. At first you’re just struggling to keep up, but the more time you spend on the web, the more you are in control. You move from bookmarks to Facebook to Twitter and then to hyper-specialized sites for ordering the details of your life. You move from bewilderment to a sense of increasing mastery.

Economists have studies our species as homo economicus, and a few decades ago, when social science colleagues investigated our game-playing nature, homo ludens was born. Today a new kind of person creates his or her very own economy in his or her head.  The age of homo ordo is upon us. (p. 13)

Cowen is firmly aligning himself with what I have referred to as the “Internet Optimist” school of thinking.  As I pointed out in my “Internet Optimists vs. Internet Pessimists” essay last September, recent commentators on the impact of Internet on culture and economics tend to fall into one of these two camps.  There’s very little middle ground.

The optimists argue that the Internet and Information Age are improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order.  Even if some norms and institutions are being forced to adapt or disappear, that’s a small price to pay for the amazing advancements that the Internet has brought us.  The Internet pessimists see things quite differently.  Net skeptics such as the late Neil Postman, Carr, Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, and Mark Helprin have argued that the Internet is destroying popular culture and professional media, that it is calling “truth” and “authority” into question by over-glamorizing amateurism and user-generated content, and that increased personalization and customization is damaging deliberative democracy by leading to homogenization, close-mindedness, and an online echo-chamber. Here’s the chart I used in a previous essay to highlight the differences between these two camps:

Internet Optimists

Internet Pessimists

Culture / Social

Net is Participatory

Net is Polarizing

Net yields Personalization

Net yields Fragmentation

a “Global village


Heterogeneity / Diversity of Thought

Homogeneity / Close-mindedness

Net breeds pro-democratic tendencies

Net breeds anti-democratic tendencies

Tool of liberation & empowerment

Tool of frequent misuse & abuse

Economics / Business

Benefits of “free” (“Free” = future of media / business)

Costs of “free” (“Free” = end of media / business)

Increasing importance of “Gift economy

Continuing importance of property rights, profits, firms

“Wiki” model = wisdom of crowds; power of collective intelligence

“Wiki” model = stupidity of crowds; errors of collective intelligence

Mass collaboration

Individual effort

John Freeman - The Tyranny of E-Mail (book cover)Now joining the ranks of the skeptics is John Freeman, the acting editor of Granta magazine and the author of the forthcoming book, The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, which is due out in October.  As mentioned above, an excerpt from the book appeared in weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal. In that essay, Freeman makes an eloquent case that we should all take a collective pause and consider what the Internet and all this information and digital gadgetry means for life and how we live it:

In the past two decades, we have witnessed one of the greatest breakdowns of the barrier between our work and per­sonal lives since the notion of leisure time emerged in Victorian Britain as a result of the Industrial Age. It has put us under great physical and mental strain, altering our brain chemistry and daily needs. It has isolated us from the people with whom we live, siphoning us away from real-world places where we gather. It has encouraged flotillas of unnecessary jabbering, making it difficult to tell signal from noise. It has made it more difficult to read slowly and enjoy it, hastening the already declining rates of literacy. It has made it harder to listen and mean it, to be idle and not fidget.

This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly on causes emotional and physical burnout, work­place meltdowns, and unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?

If we are to step off this hurtling machine, we must reassert principles that have been lost in the blur. It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world…

I take Freeman at his word that he is not out to pen a Luddite manifesto and I very much  look forward to reading his book.  I do hope he makes a better case than some other Internet skeptics — especially Keen, Siegel, and Helprin — who have unfortunately crossed that Luddite line with their tedious, anti-all-things-digital screeds.  Simply stated, the pessimists need a better spokesman.  They raise valid concerns that deserve to be taken seriously and yet it is extremely difficult to take them seriously when they persist in their seeming outright hostility to almost all technological change. The skeptics need a more balanced, less fanatical approach to addressing concerns about the Information Age and information overload.  I hope Mr. Freeman can provide it.  I look forward to his book to see if he has.

Nonetheless, I generally side with Cowen and the Internet optimists — at least when it comes to concerns about information overload.  I guess I have have a bit more faith in humans than the pessimists do. We humans adapt. We learn to cope. We’re actually pretty good at it, too. It’s not like this is the first social or technological revolution we’ve lived through, after all.  In fact, one could make a good case that many previous revolutions were far more jarring than our modern Digital Revolution.

Of course, that’s not to say that change can’t be gut-wrenching and destructive — of both economies and cultures. When I engage in debate with conservative-minded friends about the supposed destructive influences of new forms of pop culture (rock-and-roll or video games, for example), I don’t deny that new media and communications technologies alter culture and behavior in many ways, some negative. But, again, we adapt and learn to cope. The world goes on. It doesn’t get better in every way, but it does in most. I love industrial rock music and violent video games.  Am I a bad person? An uniformed one?  Well, guess what… there are millions out there like me who are getting along just fine, raising a family, holding down steady work, and being good little community citizens.  Perhaps I would swear less if I didn’t grow up listening to punk rock. Then again, my dad and his dad hated all forms of rock music but swore like sailors with their pants on fire.

Regardless, even if you align with the skeptics and believe that, on balance, things (speech, culture, communications, or whatever else) are getting worse because of the Internet and digital media, it begs the obvious questions: What, exactly do you want to do about it?  While I can appreciate the concerns raised by social and technological critics such as Mr. Freeman, they rarely seem to be willing to explain how far they would go to reverse whatever problem it is they have identified.  As Ben Casnocha pointed out in this excellent review of Tyler Cowen’s book, which appeared in The American:

The factor most in Cowen’s favor is the wind at the backs of all techno-optimists like his brethren Clay Shirky and Don Tapscott: the forward momentum of technological development. You cannot turn back the clock. It is impossible to envision a future where there is less information and fewer people on social networks. It is very possible to envision increasing abundance along with better filters to manage it. The most constructive contributions to the debate, then, heed Moore’s Law in the broadest sense and offer specific suggestions for how to harness the change for the better.

I generally agree with Mr. Casnocha except I would argue that, at least in theory, it would be possible to turn back the clock with repressive enough means.  About the closest that any of the Internet pessimists ever came to explaining what that might mean in practice was this 2007 article by Andrew Keen in Advertising Age in which he claimed that the only way to save traditional media outlets and their advertising support mechanisms was to “re-create media scarcity”:

That means less user-generated content and more professionally created information and entertainment, less technology and more creativity. The advertising community desperately needs more gatekeepers, more professional creative authorities, more so-called media “elites” who will curate, filter and organize content. That’s the way to re-establish the value of the message. It’s the one commercial antidote to Web 2.0’s radically destructive cultural democracy.

One wonders, how we go about “re-creating scarcity” in this sense. Who exactly brings in the regulatory wrecking ball and starts tearing down digital abundance?  And is that really a sensible solution?  Instead of calling for solutions that would be both intrusive and destructive, can’t we embrace the best of the modern digital age and try to temper its worst elements using other means?

The problem with the Internet optimists, by contrast, is that they only tend to see the upside of the Information Age. They sometimes fall into the trap of being pollyannas who look out at the unfolding landscape and see only rainbows in the air. Optimists need to place technological progress in context and appreciate that, as Neil Postman argued in Technopoly, there are some moral dimensions to technological progress that deserve attention. For example, if Cowen is correct that “the age of homo ordo is upon us” and we humans are now engaging in unprecedented amount of sorting, organizing, categorizing, and so on, is that entirely salubrious? Or, as the pessimists suggest, might there be downsides to that development worth exploring?

But the pessimists need to refocus their concerns and criticisms into more level-headed, practical prescriptions instead of going off the Luddite deep-end with talk of “re-creating scarcity” or “destroying the machine,” as Siegel and Helprin say.  Toward that end, I like a lot of the advice that John Freeman offers in closing of  his essay:

We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn’t search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from effi­ciency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships. We are here for a short time on this planet, and reacting to demands on our time by simply speeding up has canceled out many of the benefits of the Internet, which is one of the most fabulous technological inventions ever conceived. We are connected, yes, but we were before, only by gossamer threads that worked more slowly. Slow communication will preserve these threads and our ability to sensibly choose to use faster modes when necessary. It will also preserve our sanity, our families, our relationships and our ability to find happiness in a world where, in spite of the Internet, saying what we mean is as hard as it ever was. It starts with a simple instruction: Don’t send.

At times, I have talked here about my attempts to strike a more sensible balance between my online and offline lives. After my two kids were born, I became acutely aware of the need to take more “digital sabbaticals” or a weekly “technology Sabbath.”  I now try to find specific moments each day to shut the lid on my laptop, toss my mobile phone in the drawer, and turn off all my other digital gizmos and gadgets and just go do something terribly old-fashion or archaic.  Alas, the struggle continues. Even when I swear off digital gadgets or connectivity for a few hours, I still find myself sneaking a peak at e-mail traffic piling up on my phone.

In closing, as an information historian, I find this debate between the Internet optimists and pessimists incredibly interesting. Indeed, we can trace the intellectual roots of this struggle all the way back to the well-known allegorical tale from Plato’s Phaedrus about the dangers of the written word and the great debate between the god Theuth and King Thamus. When Theuth boasted of how his invention of writing would improve the wisdom and memory of the masses relative to the oral tradition of learning, King Thamus shot back, “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  King Thamus then passed judgment himself about the impact of writing on society, saying he feared that the people “will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” (Of course, I’d like to think that Theuth got the better of that one!)

And so the great debate about the impact of technological change on culture, learning, and morality continues.  And don’t expect it to ever end.  Just wait till virtual reality technology goes mainstream!  Oh my, that’s going to bring out a whole new batch of Theuthian technophiles and Thamusian technophobes.  And I greatly look forward to the discussion.


P.S. I have a lengthy article in the works entitled, “Theuth, Thamus & the Great Debate over Technology & Culture,” and I’m currently looking for a publisher.  If anyone out there is interested, please let me know!  It will build on what I have said in this essay as well as those below:

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