Sometimes I get ill with information. It is hypertext sickness, and it can be a compulsive disorder. It seems my mind gets high on knowledge, and the knowledge is like a drug, stimulating some part of reptilian brain that gets rewarded for exploratory behaviour, and I get stuck in a addictive loop, like a rat pressing a lever that gives it cocaine.
Bouts of hypertext sickness might last hours, with the ultimate end of a racing brain, bulging eyes, feeling like you have fallen into the matrix, and you feel sick with information. The only solution is a cold shower and a lie down. I come back to the computer and am faced with the aftermath. 25 pdf’s open and 30 tabs on my browser. Too much is too much.
A bout of information mania can actually be productive, in leading to discoveries that wouldn’t have occurred if I had exercised a more reasoned and methodological approach to research. However, the good can get lost amongst the vast mounds of information that you might have discovered, and when you have an overdose of information it makes it harder to convert to knowledge.
In my last post, I discussed the double edged sword of technology for productivity, and how information load makes technology indispensable for managing that load. With information glut the problem is largely self inflicted, and the solutions don’t all rely on technology.
An important question, which I am not going to address here, is:
Does information glut make us worse thinkers? And does the collection of information become a substitute for processing it?
For now, I am going to suggest some remedies for the disease.
How can we cure ourselves of hypertext sickness?
Patient: Doctor, Doctor! it hurts when I rub my knee!
Doctor: Well, don’t rub you knee then…
Know your purpose and have a stop rule
Perhaps most important solution is to deal with information with a purpose. What are you looking for? Why? How long have you got? Set a timer. Avoid hyperlinks. Start with the end in mind. Have a stop rule.
Turn off the internet
A strategy I have used to combat glut is to download a bunch of articles, and find a place with my laptop where wifi can’t reach. Or you could physically un plug your router, or your network connection. Physical actions help.
Or you can even use software if you find it hard to resist temptations – there was a tool called “temptation blocker” which you could program to not allow you to access your browser or email for a set period of time, though I can’t find an active download site for that software now.
Those with stronger self will could not just access the internet. Good luck to you.
If you are used to having google as an additional sensory device, you will miss not having the chance of following up references, theories and people that you read about. The solution is to make a list of those particularly important things that you want to research when you get your google back. Careful not to make that list too long though, and you can also find that many things that you thought you desperately needed to know weren’t that important after all.
Make do what you have got
I occasionally suffer from the fallacy that there is just one more article out there that I haven’t discovered that will somehow provide an answer to the problem I am trying to solve, and I end up with so many articles on a topic that it can be easy to neglect what is most important. Remember that quality is often better than quantity.
Storage is cheap
When I collect information, my only cost is time. Whether I store a pdf or webpage online is directly related to the amount of effort involved. But whatever you do, you want some way that you can easily find that article that you came across briefly two weeks ago, that you didn’t have time to process then as you were too engrossed in trying to find something else.
I used to use the firefox extension scrapbook to save webpages rather than using bookmarks, but now I use Zotero. If I open a pdf that I think will be useful in the future, I save it in my pdf folder with a meaningful name, otherwise it just gets discarded. I then use a desktop search tool to search my pdf’s and locally stored html pages.
My main point here is that if you do get overloaded with information, don’t throw it all away – keep what is important, and feel safe is discarding the rest.
Manage the information load
What I long for is a tool that helps me manage information load by seeing relationships between information, which would use natural language processing and statistical processing of meaning extraction to find relevant links between material. For Mac users, there is DevonThink, which I haven’t tried but seems to be that kind of tool, but I haven’t come across a PC program that does a similar thing. There are tools that allow you to link information together, like a wiki for example, but because of the amount of information I come across and end up storing, the hand coding of links between material is often too time intensive, and I wish my computer was clever enough to do it for me.
Turn off the computer
A more drastic solution to the problem of technoglogy is to turn into a dead tree academic. Print out a bunch of articles, find a nice notebook and pen, have a cup of tea and biscuit, and leave your computer far away.