Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Scientists: Information overload may be damaging our ability to feel

Everyone knows information overload can hurt your quality of life, but now a group of scientists claims that an endless stream of news and information can cause emotional damage and reduce our ability to feel.

The study used brain scans to measure the level of empathy produced when people were exposed to real-life stories of pain or triumph. CNN’s DigitalBiz gave a preview of the study in an April 14 article at CNN.com. The report is set to be published next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition.

Scans showed that while human beings are quick to respond to signs of physical pain in others, feeling admiration or compassion takes longer.

Human beings need time to feel empathy and judge the morality of things they read about, but the frantic pace of modern life is interrupting that process, moving our attention on to the next news alert or Twitter update before we’ve had time to judge the worth of what we’ve seen.

We may read about the kindness of a volunteer or the plight of a disaster victim, but the details of these events come and go so fast, we don’t have time to feel admiration or empathy anymore.

This leads to a kind of “empathy fatigue.” We see so much violence and suffering we become indifferent to it. I think this criticism applies more to television than it does to the Internet, but the fundamental problem is the same.

And it’s not just a problem with technology. One of my favorite essays is Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness.” What Russell said in 1932 is even more true to today.

Russell said, “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.”

He relates the story of a traveler in Naples who saw 12 beggars lying in the sun and offered them a lira. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it and he gave it to the 12th.

The point is not to pat ourselves on the back for how productive we are, but to consider how even our recreation time has been turned into a kind of work.

I remember my own love/hate relationship with World of Warcraft, when logging onto the game started to feel like clocking in for my second job.

A lot of people surf the Internet in their spare time, but can you really call that relaxing? Taken all together, my time spent on the Internet has done more to disturb me and rile me up than it has helped to calm me down.

When Russell praises idleness, he’s not praising time spent surfing the Web or watching television. He’s praising a very old kind of idleness, a kind we don’t really have anymore – a state of mind associated with lemonade, porch swings and the composition of poetry.

Americans may have more time “off” in the modern world, but we don’t really have time to think.

It’s the thinking that matters – the lost art of contemplation, when we take time to process all these competing inputs and figure out what they mean. We experience more news than ever, but we seem to be feeling it less.

We’re bombarded with alerts, blogs, instant messages, ringing phones and the incessant demands of social networks, all clamoring for our attention. But when everything is important, nothing is.

Up until now, the great challenge of the Internet was to bring us information, to small groups and the larger world in new and exciting ways.

Now that we’re connected, the next challenge will be a challenge of editing and filtering – a challenge of scheduling, organizing and managing the flow. I think the next great technology breakthrough will be a tool for managing these inputs and presenting them to us at a pace we can keep up with.

Let’s say you just want to follow the activities of one person. The average Internet “citizen” has a blog, a Facebook, a Myspace, an email and a Twitter account.

All of these services allow people to post updates about their lives. But how do we know which one will be used for what purpose? With 20 different options to choose from, where should I share this cool weather photo I just took?

Even if we find the perfect tool, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. Social networks have introduced the concept of “ranking” friends. I may have a hundred friends on Facebook, but I can’t keep up with a hundred status updates each day. And what about the Twitterholics who send a message every 30 minutes?

How do I separate the idle chatter from the sources I need for work?

Ultimately, we have to remember that technology is here to serve us. The most important decision to make about television, cell phones and web services may be when to turn them off.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 17, 2009 at 18:22

Posted in Columns

2 Responses

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  1. Amen.

    Let me second that: amen!


    May 19, 2009 at 00:45

  2. Afraid I couldn’t finish the article….too busy being bombarded from Facebook, Twitter and some character called my boss…..


    May 19, 2009 at 07:42

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