Information Addiction in the Digital Age
By Owen Wang
April 4, 2023
For many netizens today, the information superhighway seems like a meaningless, archaic term from the bygone days of AOL discs and text files. Yet this metaphor, notwithstanding its contemporary irrelevance, was the ideal upon which the modern Internet was forged. In the early Digital Age, pioneers of computing technology envisioned a world where an interconnected highway of machines would facilitate the exchange of ideas on a planetary scale. Never before in human history would information be more readily accessible by the general public, and never before would humans be more well-informed.
The success of this vision is a curse as well as a boon. For all its conveniences, the advent of the Internet has compelled us to consume more information than ever before – four times more, in terms of bits, than twenty years ago, ninety times more than during the Second World War. On average, we spend seventy percent of our waking hours each day browsing the news, checking emails, and wandering on social media feeds. Knowledge is power, information is good; this tacit mantra has become the cornerstone of life in the cybersphere. The Internet may have been something of our creation, but it controls us in nearly every respect. What revolutionized the communication world has ultimately spurred an epidemic of information addiction.
This addiction is not the product of a digitized society but has been a characteristic of the human mind since the Middle Paleolithic, some three hundred thousand years before the dot-com bubble. On the African savannah, having access to more information allowed us to make better decisions, increasing our chances of survival. Curiosity was a central element in our evolution. To the brain, ignorance is not bliss, but a source of stress, and the inquietude of not knowing is difficult to overcome.
The desire to know has been a part of human nature since time immemorial, but the definition of information has changed. No longer is knowledge a means of survival, but a vehicle of captivity for the brain. The consumption of information has since become an impulsive act, manifesting itself through our habits of mindless browsing (or, in Twitter vernacular, “doomscrolling”). Curiosity is a blessing for humanity, but our hardwired inquisitiveness is a disadvantage at best in a time of excessive data. Most of the things we want to know are a distraction from the most important things that we already know.
Despite its severity and omnipresence in a digitized society, information addiction is not a lost cause. Because no single government or corporate entity oversees the Internet, it is up to us to take ownership of our online behaviour. Above all, we should create a schedule for reading the news or scrolling through social media. This method provides a general structure for our Internet usage and steers us from the helpless sense of drowning in unimportant information. Once we break free from the cycle of constant stimulation, we regain control of our technology and reëstablish our connection with the offline world – our family, our friends, and our hobbies.
Thirty years ago, some doubted our potential to transition from the library to the Web. This diffidence seems almost satirical today: thirty years on, the realization of the information superhighway isinevitable, almost prophetic. We are living in an epoch of unprecedented connectivity. We have never been more informed, but it is our responsibility to decide how much information we wish to consume. That is our luxury – and our burden.