Age of the Informavore

We make technology, but our technology also makes us. At the online science/culture journal Edge, BB pal John Brockman went deep -- very deep -- into this concept. Frank Schirrmacher is co-publisher of the national German newspaper FAZ and a very, very big thinker. Schirrmacher has raised public awareness and discussion about some of the most controversial topics in science research today, from genetic engineering to the aging population to the impacts of neuroscience. At Edge, Schirrmacher riffs on the notion of the "informavore," an organism that devours information like it's food. After posting Schirrmacher's thoughts, Brockman invited other bright folks to respond, including the likes of George Dyson, Steven Pinker, John Perry Barlow, Doug Rushkoff, and Nick Bilton. Here's a taste of Schirrmacher, from "The Age of the Infomavore":
We are apparently now in a situation where modern technology is changing the way people behave, people talk, people react, people think, and people remember. And you encounter this not only in a theoretical way, but when you meet people, when suddenly people start forgetting things, when suddenly people depend on their gadgets, and other stuff, to remember certain things. This is the beginning, its just an experience. But if you think about it and you think about your own behavior, you suddenly realize that something fundamental is going on. There is one comment on Edge which I love, which is in Daniel Dennett's response to the 2007 annual question, in which he said that we have a population explosion of ideas, but not enough brains to cover them.

As we know, information is fed by attention, so we have not enough attention, not enough food for all this information. And, as we know -- this is the old Darwinian thought, the moment when Darwin started reading Malthus -- when you have a conflict between a population explosion and not enough food, then Darwinian selection starts. And Darwinian systems start to change situations. And so what interests me is that we are, because we have the Internet, now entering a phase where Darwinian structures, where Darwinian dynamics, Darwinian selection, apparently attacks ideas themselves: what to remember, what not to remember, which idea is stronger, which idea is weaker...

It's the question: what is important, what is not important, what is important to know? Is this information important? Can we still decide what is important? And it starts with this absolutely normal, everyday news. But now you encounter, at least in Europe, a lot of people who think, what in my life is important, what isn't important, what is the information of my life. And some of them say, well, it's in Facebook. And others say, well, it's on my blog. And, apparently, for many people it's very hard to say it's somewhere in my life, in my lived life.

The Age of the Informavore


  1. This is so true. I notice it everyday. Half my brain is on the internet. People don’t make firm plans anymore, just loose agreements to be closeby at sometime-ish and rely on cellphones to find each other. This behavior probably has wider ramifications but I’ll have to think on it. Or rather, let others think about it and I’ll just google it later! :-)

  2. It’s not new that technology changes “the way people behave, people talk, people react, people think, and people remember.” That’s been going on since we started sharpening rocks. Technology has always had this transformative effect, just now it happens so very quickly that the change is noticeable with in a span of years rather than centuries.

  3. Funny, I was just thinking about how many more young people I’ve been seeing going thru life with their eyes glued to their gadgets. Living in the machine instead of living life. Life going by while gadgets got their eye! :(

  4. Unless John Brockman went “deep — very deep” into Frank Schirrmacher, I think there is a “with” missing from the second sentence.

  5. From my Google Reader trends “From your 58 subscriptions, over the last 30 days you read 6,574 items,…”. It’s less that its being an informavore and more of an information addiction, when I have nothing left to read I add more feeds.

  6. “when suddenly people depend on their gadgets, and other stuff, to remember certain things”

    Whoa, citation please. It could very well be that people remember about as much stuff as they did before, but now with that gadget in hand the stuff they shuttle into long term storage has changed. I used to have to remember a bunch of telephone numbers but now let my phone cache minutiae like that so I can devote my neurons to things that are more interesting and important to me. It’s not that I’m putting less stuff in my head, it’s just that I’m applying more fine grained filters to it. Ultimately I seem to just wind up stuffing all my now freed memory full of song lyrics, but eh.

    But I do agree about people addicted to their devices. I hate hate hate leaving the office having a conversation with someone and they have to look at their phone to see if they’ve gotten any messages while we’re walking along and talking. Look, I get that I’m less interesting than lots of people out there in your monkeysphere, but could you at least not throw it in my face like that?

  7. As Schirrmacher says:

    “when you have a conflict between a population explosion and not enough food, then Darwinian selection starts.”

    To the extent that the Internet is a useful tool, I think you’ll see that those “selected” by Nature will find the proposition that “the internet is starving our attention” is a strangely antithetical perspective, whereas people being “selected” out will agree that the internet is a reduction in the limits of humanism.

    The only way that you can see the dialectic nature in this situation is if you are within that group that doesn’t find the internet to be an unwieldy source of distraction. Prior to the internet we processed a lot of social information to the exclusion of others’ experiences. We read what we could, we talked to people when we could, but the variety of people we were able to co-process information with was much more limited than it is now. The pre-internet period was dark and information was processed more slowly. That’s how I see it. But there is a relativity. For other people the pre-internet was just right, they had their sources, and their means of processing, all source of information overload had been managed to a preferred level that fit a pre-internet context and now it is all undone and become too bright again, there is too much new information now. That’s relativity. Its the same thing from two perspectives, two contexts.

  8. Speaking of relying on gadgets to remember things, wasn’t this Plato’s criticism of writing– that it led to the atrophy of memory?
    And think of all that time people spend with their noses in books, rather than out experiencing the world getting information directly from…wherever you get it if you’re an illiterate wandering around.

  9. Important data is relative to the individual — but memorizing random ID numbers (phone or otherwise) is not a relevant skill. Even spelling is less relevant, I would argue, and before 2050 something will be done about your/you’re and there/their/they’re — either homogenization or better grammar checkers (I had one in 1989 that outperformed anything current — why?)

    People want knowledge, but only knowledge that is interesting to them. Anything that can be outsourced will be, successfully, and for the betterment of us all.

    Our pet theories and opinions will improve the world, one at a time. Or so I hope and believe.

  10. Information, at best, is a vibrant, fluid thing the creates a web of neural connections, increases understanding and wisdom, and is actively useful in the world.

    But too much information, without the energy to build something with it, to make those critical connections, to pass it on to those who can actively use it, can begin to ferment, can

    It’s like eating too much food, more than your system can digest in a certain period of time.

    Information has been shown to have a neurological effect: reading something we agree with gives us a little dopamine burst, while reading something that doesn’t square with what we hold true has the opposite effect. We like to feel like we are right, and so we naturally seek out information that confirms this.

    Thus, people have a natural inclination to read more and more of what they agree with, and to ignore what they don’t. Agreeable information literally becomes like a drug. Pardoxically,collecting information becomes a form of mindless entertainment.

    I think there’s a real value in the “information diet.” We should treat information the way we treat food. We are awash in valueless information, just as we are awash in nutritionless food. We should consume that which is nutritious, which makes healthy connections in our system, and that turns easily into energy that we can do something useful with. We should cut back on consuming that which only reaffirms what we already hold to be true.

  11. Ooo! Yes! This is good, useful thought. See, it’s the ones that learn how to sort the good food from the bad food that are going to “survive.”

  12. I work as develeoper in the electronic industry. There all this gadgets were quite normal long before the Internet has become an mass phenomenon (less glossy and with lower resolution). My personal experience is after an typical process of curiosity -> enthusiasm -> disillusion -> everyday life things return to a technology which is known as battery independent rugged much more readable and human adapted than all these electronic gadgets. Paper. where i can glue in the shopping list from my wife, shortly notes a receipt and much more.

    Surely with a google calendar, internet news and radio a.s.o .

    Changes in behavior affects much more the media industry than everyday life.

  13. Yes, I see an issue. I am a nontraditional undergrad student of philosophy. I am 32. Most of the people I hang with here at school are professors, or 20ish year olds. A generation gap is quickly becoming a generation barrier. The y gens are amazing people but they have no immune system to protect them from marketing bombardment. Their parents are/were either unskilled in the art of wisdom, or just non-existent.
    The first time conversations I have eves dropped on are interesting to say the least. Little, if any, genuine friendships are formed amongst themselves and I find the y’s latch on to me like children to a blanket. When I see a beautiful woman walking down the hall, and I or some other guy smiles at them, they instantly pull out their cell and pretend to check it. Not just the girls do this. It seems they have created a safe haven they cannot do without. On facebook, on the cell, twitter, and ipods we all find some sort of quietude within the noise.
    I was in a car recently going to a concert. There were five of us. We had one destination. Mass confusion in sued. My mouth hung open in disbelief at the un-efficiency the operation. I began to pay closer attention to them and the way they communicate. I am troubled by what I have noticed. The entire car ride was an exchange of vocabulary that did not make sense to me or to any of them. They would argue with each other when they were making the same point or argue two completely different things. I listened to people have conversations with each other about 2 completely different topics. Drama is bound to take place. So much drama. People became angry and frustrated with one and another; can one blame them? Perhaps in a world of text messaging and tweets, face to face communication is being forgotten.

  14. Octopod: New novel releasing July 2010, ‘The Fuller Memorandum’.

    Historical note: The Major Fuller in question was a disciple of Crowley, important military historian, and one of the first people in the military to realize the breakthrough importance of tank warfare after WW I. The British military didn’t listen to him; the Germans did.

  15. Oh my god seriously? Don’t we have other things to worry about as opposed to receiving “to much” information. If anything more information is a solution to a problems like censoring or propaganda. Forgetfulness and “informavore Darwinism” is so effin trivial to issues that range from global warming to athletes foot, which by the way can be read about on the internet.

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