Information consumption in an information age

We live in an information age. We are consumers of it. The impact of good knowledge consumption is something championed by humans: we can alter our behavior and our environment (hopefully) for the better. In this way, all of us intuitively understand and employ this to the best of our ability. My goal of this article is to extend that last notion: “best of our ability.”

There are pitfalls to knowledge consumption. Sometimes it’s a gluttonous endeavor. You may be familiar with the adage, “We read what we like.” I think it usually is worse than that: We believe what we like regardless of what we read. That is, if you watch a news report by a competing view, you have the ability to qualify and even dismiss the presented information. After all, there is no such thing as a definitive answer, these days.

When we’re dealing with basic functions of living and contradicting information, that’s fine, because if you don’t believe me when I tell you, “Your arm is on fire,” eventually the information will get to you by experience, and your beliefs will likely alter. In other words, really, listening doesn’t need to be relevant at the level of imminent survival, because experience informs us better, and more relevantly addresses our individual needs. In this example, you know better than I do. My observations of your arm are nowhere near the authority the sensory neurons in your arm can faithfully provide you.

But what about more distant problems? Why are we inundated with so much “information” on the internet, in the media, in research journals, and why am I discussing our resilience to believe one thing over another regardless of “information”? Today society is attempting to resolve problems that are more distant- physical distance (for example, your aunt in California…), distance in time (…who may have terminal cancer), distance in personal relations from ourselves (…and will rely on cancer research on other human subjects), and in a remarkable way, is able to talk about it.

The problem is our interests in these capacities relies on outdated faculties. If I tell you your arm is on fire, except that the burning is happening very slowly, and the sun is the cooker, you may be wrong to rely on the nice warm feeling you have. If I’m talking about skin cancer, how can we build reliable “senses” to tell us what’s good for us twenty years down the road?

This isn’t just a problem of popular consumption. Many college graduates, even in the sciences, are unable to accurately consume information. Can I really address and resolve the problems in their logic, in my blog, what wasn’t resolved in a college education? It depends, actually, and I’m going to explain by way of demonstration. You will answer for yourself how you wish to treat information.

Situation: An information source (any type- news, blog, primary research literature, whatever) reports the long term impact of UV rays on skin. Ask yourself: Is your skin ever exposed to the sun? Are you concerned about your future welfare? If not to either, then are you concerned about anyone else’s (skin or welfare)- such as your aunt’s? How can you know if the information reported is relevant to you or your aunt?

These sorts of questions are always relevant in determining how to consume information. The reassuring thing is, rational consumption of information is largely a function of your desire to be a rational consumer. You will find that many of the answers to those questions, however remarkable or unremarkable must be qualified in different ways.

We may mistakenly be skeptical of all reports, and default back to the age-old adage of thinking information that is good for us tastes good. However, all studies either directly or indirectly speak to a truth. If you believe at all, there is is something at all out there to be learned, you will start to broaden your tastes from just media reports and blogs that appeal to your interest.

You will learn to like your vegetables. You will learn to digest and crave dry, dry foods. And you will know the probable relevance of a skin cancer report, and more importantly, the qualified meaning and behavioral change it offers your life. You will know how to sense slow fires on your arm just as you sense nuanced bitter tastes, and you will grow in your ability to improve your own life and that of those you care for.

Now go eat. Take my word for it.

3 thoughts on “Information consumption in an information age

  1. You need to explore what it means to be a gluttonous consumer of information. I take it that such a consumer feeds on information irrelevant to her life. For example, a 56-year-old woman may lean over article after article discussing the association of artificial sweeteners and numerous negative outcomes (e.g., weight gain, brain tumors, tooth decay). If this woman is of normal weight and devoid of tumors and cavities, we may conclude that, given that these variables are all that matter in assigning value to her consumption, she is consuming information beyond nutritional value; she is a glutton. But what if something else matters in assigning value to her habit? This is exactly the problem with your content: when imagining sitting down for a nice plate of The New York Times and The New England Journal of Medicine, there is very little you offer to distinguish it as an empty binge or a virtuous meal. What matters? You write that this point is up to the individual, but that’s vacuous. What have you given your reader aside from guilt? My point is that it is clear that information can be consumed indiscriminately, and that there are ways to refine our consumption habits; a future post should expand and how this can be done.

    1. Sometimes I go hungry worrying about the right thing to eat. Let’s leave the food-as-information metaphor behind.

      I intended to make two points: illustrate the challenge in appreciating information when it doesn’t pertain to our immediate needs (or disagrees with them), and to inspire an organic and nontechnical way to evaluate information.

      It looks like your point is ‘we have no objective measure to determine the nutritional value of information, because it depends on the individual’s needs,’ and/or, ‘how do we pick the right meal,’ Since that’s not what I’m talking about, you’re right, I didn’t offer much on that topic.

      By using the metaphor of a burning arm (immediate threat) and a warm arm (eventual threat), I intended to show that there are two levels of knowledge we can gain, and that if we intend to engage in long term information, we should be careful not to use our emotions and senses to decide what is good, and what is not. I hoped this distinction alone would inspire people to see scientific information differently, and create for themselves a set of tools in evaluating the information.

      (Someone once asked me to use my instincts to make a judgment call about whether I should put my head close to a microwave. My instincts don’t understand microwaves, so instead I tried to research the dangers.)

      1. Let me see if I understand: When the trash builds up in the can in my kitchen, it begins to stink so I take it out. My arm is on fire, so I stop, drop, and roll. When I’m browsing my facebook newsfeed, I stumble upon an article in Huffington Post that thoroughly explains where our trash goes, what negative effects result when it accumulates, and what we can do to reduce our share of it; the journalist is effectively telling me that my trash stinks even when it leaves my kitchen, and that down the road I’ll run into the indirect effects of it. I see no good proximal reasons to curb my habits that make all of my trash, and I find it very easy to dismiss the journalist’s conclusions and suggestions because they make me uncomfortable. Sun exposure feels good as it slowly mutates the cells in my skin. Twenty years later, I’m complaining that pristine wilderness is hard to find, and landfills have replaced it. I’ve developed stage 4 melanoma.

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