You’re Reading This Because You’re Addicted to Information

Our research-induced, online black holes are changing who we are

Illustration: Carolyn Figel

Roughly 45 minutes into an online search for a vegetable peeler, I looked away from my screen to realize the kitchen had grown dark and the day turned to night. I thought to myself, this is a problem.

The peeler needed to be tough enough to slice smoothly through a lemon peel, but also easy-to-clean and pretty enough to pass as artful — it needed to be the vegetable peeler I would own for the rest of my life. I found all this in a peeler I will call The One, which came with rave reviews from Mariah H. in Wisconsin, a woman I blindly trusted due to her strategic use of exclamation marks. But shipping cost $4.95 — a glaring injustice — and did I really want to spend the equivalent of my Saturday morning coffee on a luxury vegetable peeler? Nope. Instead, I’d keep scouring for The One, sans shipping.

The amount of information I felt compelled to consume for something as trivial as a vegetable peeler — still a fraction of the effort I put forth in my pursuit of perfect bed pillows — was perhaps slightly obsessive, I admit. But I know I’m not the only one who’s vulnerable to these types of research-induced, online black holes. I couldn’t make decisions for myself. I was addicted to information, and the relationship was a parasitic one; the more intel I gathered to help make an informed decision, the less control I had to actually act on it.

Information addiction was nourished into existence by the internet. It’s the force behind our absolute need to know every mundane detail about some celebrity’s life; it’s the reason we spend hours poring over Yelp reviews to triangulate the best bar in a five-block radius, and what drives us to gladly check the box that says, “Yes! Send me push notifications about breaking news.” But, as the internet is all but a crash-test for human behaviors before they are unleashed into reality, information addiction has since taken on a shape more brooding and fearsome, seeding itself into our cultural and political values and attitudes toward human interaction.

Living in this environment inherently changes the way we process information — consider the difference between taking a calculus exam in a library versus a locker room.

Perhaps the most glaring byproduct of this addiction is a cultural shift toward valuing information based solely on volume. There is a limit, for example, to the number of vegetable peeler reviews I could have read before maxing out on all possible information, but this still did not stop me from devouring every last one. This phenomenon is also ever-present in our news cycle, which works to satisfy our constantly ravenous appetite for “informative” content. More often than not, I wake up baffled and exhausted by the sheer number of op-eds published that day on this month’s hottest news story; how many unique angles can there be on President Donald Trump’s impeachment?

The effect is one of insularity, the feeling that we are all living in a collective echo chamber in which sounds are continuously added but never allowed to leave. Living in this environment inherently changes the way we process information — consider the difference between taking a calculus exam in a library versus a locker room — paralyzing our reasoning skills and shaping us into information machines with the sole goal of acquisition. When overloaded with input, we short circuit; we obscure the difference between true information — or knowledge — and slush.

We have been forced to learn to optimize in order to cope.

The ubiquity of false information in the 21st century complicates this further. The prevalence of bogus political ads on Facebook is an obvious example, but not all false information is so intentionally deceptive. Perhaps more troubling is its insidious cousin, non-information: Details that present themselves as informative but are in fact entirely hollow. A perfect depiction of this occurs in Ben Lerner’s recent novel, The Topeka School, when the protagonist leads his debate team to near-effortless victory using a tactic called “the spread,” in which a debater “marshal[s] more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time,” despite the evidence often being extemporaneous and made up. In other words, it is not so much about what one says as it is the incomprehensible speed with which one says it; more about the aesthetic of providing information than the act itself.

To be on the receiving end of this information overload — as most Americans unavoidably are — is a daily burden that has rewired the way we interact. We have been forced to learn to optimize in order to cope. According to a 2011 study published in Science, humankind’s capacity for storing information quintupled between 1986 and 2007. Exposure to such volume of information puts us into what neuroscientist Daniel Levitin calls “a brain state of decision fatigue.” As Levitin wrote in the Guardian, “One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.”

The trouble comes when this mindset optimization snakes its way into human intimacy. We’ve routinely eliminated and automatized the small interactions that, way back when, were considered a vital part of a good life. We send our phone calls straight to voicemail. Our emails suggest ready-made replies. Tasks that once necessitated face-to-face interaction can now be done online.

We often use the internet to fill in gaps of information about people we know but are too afraid to ask. The danger is: How often does our online understanding of a person undermine our real-life interactions with them? We have access to as much information about one another as ever. If you were to tell me your name, in five minutes I could report back with a laundry list of facts about your life. But of course given the long-standing culture of social media, in which a picturesque, constructed life supersedes that of a genuinely good one, these facts would all likely be non-information; I wouldn’t have learned anything real about you. In college, I had a terrible habit of Google-searching all the names on my course lists at the start of the semester, as I was for some reason seduced by the idea of knowing everything about everyone in the room before ever stepping in it. I had imagined this would give me some kind of advantage, except it didn’t. Instead, I spent the entire fall trying to avoid accidentally outing myself with some bit of information I wasn’t supposed to know.

Information overload hinders us from living spontaneously and hijacks our ability to act and to decide.

Maybe that is the crux of the issue: What information are we supposed to know and not know? Why do we (rather, why did I) feel so entitled to know it in the first place? Whenever I buy a new book I find it inexplicably satisfying, even sublime, to think that I am holding so many words, thousands of them, in my hands. While I know this satisfaction is born in part out of my natural curiosity for what lies between the covers, I cannot help but wonder if it is also because my brain recognizes, in the act of reading, the same pinging rush of dopamine I’d once felt in my search for a vegetable peeler.

As a writer, I think there’s something beautiful about this shared desire to process mass amounts of language. It worries me that language’s contract with meaning has loosened, that our consumption habits have begun to eerily resemble those of a computer. Yet, against my best intentions, I can’t help it: I delight in the collection of information, true, false, and useless alike.

If this collection — addiction — was not so tied to the internet, would I still feel compelled to critique it? If, for instance, I went and sat in a library and sifted through yearbooks and newspapers, I doubt that I would be so worried about having wasted hours of my time. But aside from this change of medium, I’d be engaging with the library in a way that’s not all that different from the way I engage with the internet. This leads me to think (or, maybe, to want to believe) that information addiction has a more innocent beginning: a human aptitude for learning. As Aristotle wrote of viewing realistic representation of objects in art, no matter how painful to see: “The reason of the delight in seeing the picture is that one is at the same time learning — gathering the meaning of things.”

But this isn’t ancient Greece. Behaviors and desires are complicated by the digital universe that runs concurrently with our own. Our obsession with information, with keeping tabs on everything and everyone at all times, is rooted in our fear of missing out. The irony is that obtaining this information does not help us overcome the fear, but rather, nourishes it. Information overload hinders us from living spontaneously and hijacks our ability to act and to decide, sidelining us from the human interaction we crave. Refusing to engage this overload — like cutting myself off at a maximum of three vegetable peeler reviews — is a small act of rebellion; it’s the only way to rewire our addiction.

Writer and MFA student living in Brooklyn with my boyfriend, our imaginary dog, and our family of houseplants. @cassiearch

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