musings > general

Can too much information be bad?

25 Jun, 2016 | 6 min read

I wrote a draft for a post last Mental Health Awareness Week about an issue I have with ‘listicle’ style articles on mental health; “12 things not to say to someone with depression”, “Feeling sad, read these 5 foolproof methods to brighten your day” — that sort of thing. The overall point was that I’m a little wary of those because, while it’s obviously and measurably a good thing that more people have more access to more information about mental health, giving people only half the story can sometimes cause more harm than good. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and all that.

I never published that article in the end, because I wasn’t happy with the overall message (and also because, in over 500 words, I didn’t really say a whole lot that wasn’t in that paragraph). But I read it again and it struck me that a lot of the issues I have with those articles also translate to other things. Specifically, I was thinking about the EU referendum and the way people used information (and what information they used) to justify whichever side of the fence they were on.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about Brexit, per-say — nor is it a post about mental health. I’m merely using both of these as a vehicle to make my points.

We live a lot of our lives in soundbites — chunks of information that we can call upon at short notice to furnish us with some understanding of a given situation. In the blog-post-that-never-was, I make the point that we love listicle articles because they make the idea of — say, mental health — more accessible. We don’t all have degrees psychology, or doctorates in mental health; we can’t know everything about a situation. Yet more and more we have to understand lots of individual things to navigate our way through an increasingly connected and informed world.

Too much to understand?

By now you’ll have seen the news pieces on ‘leavers remorse’, those people who regret the way they voted, some because they didn’t think their vote would count. There are also claims that, on the day after the voting, one of the top Google searches was ‘What is the EU?’.

Obviously, I’m beyond incensed by both of these things. But taking a dispassionate view on it, I don’t know if I’m really all that surprised. Is it really a shock that the EU — an body most from both sides of the debate agree is horrifically opaque — is a source of confusion? And given that, every time an election comes up, we’re always hearing how the voting system is unfair, should we be shocked that many just assumed their vote would get lost in the noise? If there was any ‘official’ explanation that every single vote mattered because we were going to be treated as individuals rather than as constituents, then I missed it.

Often there is simply too much to understand about politics in general. It’s why issue politics is becoming more prevalent than party politics — why many (myself included) are frustrated that we are trying to tackle global problems with the same two-party-favouring political system that we’ve had since the dawn of Parliament. We struggle to engage with politics in its entirety, not because we are too stupid, but because it is too nuanced and the system isn’t equipped to deal with that.

I’m digressing (shock…), but this was sort of my issue with mental health articles. I do worry that reading a short article is something of a tick box exercise. By reading one interpretation of one aspect of mental health, is there a danger that one internalises that view point and uses it as their primary lens for all people? Again, not because people are stupid, but through a combination of simply not knowing what they don’t know, and not having the time or capacity to get more information.

I guess what I’m trying to get my head around is the concept of “things are too big”.

Are short attention spans the problem?

We’re always hearing that we have such short attention spans. I don’t know if that’s true. I watched the entire election coverage on Thursday night, and then spent the whole of Friday watching the news after the results broke. I know I’m not the only one. Once-in-a-generation news stories aside, I spend hours at a time reading blog posts on mental health, on politics, on startups. I watch countless documentaries and TED talks on everything from clean energy to the education system. I do this because these are things I care about.

But there are plenty of important things I don’t pay attention to. In my city, we’ve got a new bus system being put in that’s part of a multi-billion pound investment strategy to connect different areas and revitalise the community. It’s supposed to bring together sectors, including the tech and startup scenes, and mean more jobs, less traffic, and greater prosperity for the city.

And I don’t care.

I’ve tried — I really have. But the information is so sparse and difficult to come by, and the outcomes seem so arbitrary and intangible, that after a while it wasn’t worth my time to pursue it. I’ll learn about it when it’s done, and in the meantime, I have other things to worry about.

If that’s how I feel about a major redevelopment happening outside my front door, what realistically do I expect from people when we’re asked to consider the nigh-on impregnable enigma that is international economic and political systems?

We don’t have short attention spans, we just have limited capacity to engage deeply with things.

That’s why listicles, soundbites, and the like work — because we know we should care about things we don’t engage with. We feel guilty that we don’t understand the intricacies of the labour (small L) economy or the effects of fracking, and so we try and keep up by scratching the surface of many things, and only indulging in understanding a few.

Sometimes we can only scratch the surface.

The problem, and for me the worry that instigated the blog-post-that-never-was, is that sometimes we forget that we’re just scratching the surface. We take the ‘knowledge’ at face-value without probing deeper. We think we have all the information we need to understand a subject, not necessarily out of arrogance, but because we don’t know what we don’t know. We take that, and we move on. It’s not that we don’t care (at least, not always). Rather there are simply other things in life that we prioritise; family, friends, jobs, the latest season of Orange Is The New Black, our health, other news stories that touch us more personally.

Of course there are things that deserve __our attention more than others, and I’m not defending those people who are wilfully ignorant of issues. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have tried harder to understand. I also definitely think that both sides of the debate were unforgivably ineffectual at actually providing us with education on the issues, and rather than debasing us all with their mud-slinging, should have raised the level of public debate such that we could all have more informed discussions. But I said I wasn’t going to write a political piece…

I guess all I’m trying to do here is remind myself that sometimes decisions are much bigger than we can understand. And maybe, on some level, that’s OK.

That and recycle old blog drafts. Obviously.

tags: brexit decision making information overload life

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