When information paralyzes us
We live in the information age, and I don't know about you, but my mind hasn't evolved enough to parse out all the information I receive in one day. We live in the reality of globalization, this is wonderful, but it comes with its downsides. We take in the news from our local, regional, national, and global communities. Unfortunately, we aren't equipped to handle this amount of heartache.
It is estimated that one weekday edition of today's New York Times contains more information than the average person in seventeenth-century England was likely to come across in an entire lifetime.
Such claims are large, uncorroborated, and only make sense if 'information' in this case pertains to the written word. Nonetheless, this struck a chord with me. Information is overwhelming.
When I think about information, I think about data and analytic tools like Google Analytics, Amplitude, and Mixpanel. These tools collect information about the visitors that land on your website and the actions they take. Collecting information about your website traffic will change nothing if all you do is collect it. These tools can paralyze you into inaction if you don't know what to do when unfamiliar with them. Data is only helpful if you can see patterns and pull out narratives. When you set up systems and guard rails, you can parse out valuable bits of actionable information and update your site for the benefit of your visitors or customers.
Technology has moved faster than our human mind has evolved
Every day we are given more information than we know what to do with. We read, watch videos, and consume thousands of snippets of data, and then that information sits there. Worst of all, much of this information is hard to deal with, traumatic, or heavy. Every day we see racism, war, gun violence, abuse, and disease happening worldwide, and we become numb.
The information we consume paralyzes us because we don't have a filter to make things actionable. It's known as the 'Information-action ratio,' a concept coined by cultural critic Neil Postman.
In a speech to the German Informatics Society, Postman said: "The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one's status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it."
Imagine yourself living in 18th century New England. You live in a small town, most of the news you would interact with would be hyper-local. "There was a fire at a neighbor's barn down the street." What do you do with that information? You help your neighbor. The information you hear and consume is mostly actionable. You aren't pounded with helplessness and guilt.
Today we aren't afforded that luxury. Most of the information we consume is not actionable. And we feel helpless.
So what do we do?
Choose a cause
A friend of mine recently shared that she has to ask herself when consuming information: "is this within my jurisdiction?" She has selected a handful of hard and heartbreaking causes to go all-in on. These are things she gives time, money, and energy to consistently. It doesn't mean she isn't gutted when she learns about all the heartbreaking things happening in the world. But she has decided to focus continual efforts on several key issues. So she asks herself, is this a cause within my current capacity or jurisdiction to contribute to. If not, she has to let it go. She still contributes to causes that come up, but instead of feeling helpless, she feels secure knowing she has contributed to something for the long haul.
Make money and give
I read a great Twitter thread today around people in tech wanting to help when big cultural moments happen:
"If you have highly-marketable tech skills, the best way you can use them in a crisis? Use them to make more money, then donate to people working on the problem already"
"So amateur volunteers, however well-intentioned and skilled in their own fields, are often solving the wrong problem. And even if they can deliver something valuable, handing it off and walking away just creates technical debt for the people you think you're helping."
We want to help, but our energy fades when the next big thing comes up, and if the last couple of years has taught us anything, the next big thing will come.
Turn down your news consumption and give yourself grace
It is hard to have such an off-balance information-action ratio. Don't beat yourself up for not saving the world at every turn. You are one human with a limited capacity. Give when you can, participate when you can, pour your energy into a couple of long-term causes, and give yourself some grace.
Stay safe out there, friends. Take care of your mental health.
We love you to all the people dealing with the heartbreaking war and destruction happening in Ukraine. Are hearts are heavy with you.