Data Smog

Here’s an article by Dr. Andrew Weil where he talks about being deluged with too much information:

Addressing Information Overload

This is the Information Age. We live in the middle of a revolution in collecting and disseminating information made possible by computers, the Internet, e-mail, mobile phones, and digital media. Information overload is the defining characteristic of our times and the main force now shaping the evolution of human society.

Sounds good, but there is a profound downside. A great deal of that information overload is irrelevant or suspect, and the sheer amount of it is drowning us. In addition, the media that deliver it to us are changing brain function, not necessarily for the better. The revolution in communication and information delivery has become one of the most contributory factors to epidemic depression.

Francis Heylighen, a cyberneticist at the Free University of Brussels, wrote, “The retrieval, production and distribution of information [are] infinitely easier than in earlier periods, practically eliminating the cost of publication. This has reduced the natural selection processes, which would otherwise have kept all but the most important information from being transmitted….The result is an explosion in irrelevant, unclear, and simply erroneous data fragments. This overabundance of low quality information has been called data smog….The problem is that people have clear limits in the amount of information they can process.”

When the amount of information overload coming at them exceeds those limits, people suffer. They are likely to ignore or forget information they need, to be overconfident on the basis of flawed or incomplete information, and to be less in control of their lives as a result. In the long term, information overload increases stress, with all of its predictable consequences for physical and emotional health.

For mental health and balance, nothing is more essential than placing firm limits on the amount of information you let into your life. There is no single right way to do it. You may choose to answer no email after 4 p.m. You may decide to carry a simpler cell phone that does not contain a vast array of attractive, distracting “apps.” You may take extended “data vacations” in which you have no interaction with digital devices at all, choosing instead to converse with friends, work in the garden, or otherwise engage in some activity that’s been part of human experience for thousands of years.

I can’t tell when he wrote this but I think data smog was a topic he covered in his 2011 book, Spontaneous Happiness. It wasn’t that long ago but in those 6 or 7 years I feel we’ve become even more attached to the online world. You can pay your bills, do your banking, shop, play games, watch movies, listen to music, do research, order meals … all online. All of that and now with the “internet of things” it’s become even more difficult to unplug. Do you think? (All of those things I just mentioned are also an opportunity to be exposed to advertising. Ads are everywhere!)

Two questions:

1. Do you take breaks from technology? (On purpose, not because you have to, and sleeping doesn’t count.)
2. What do you do during your break?

This is what grew from exactly 6 marigold seeds that I planted back in May and that resisted daily destruction by a chipmunk. I’m not a gardener and I don’t know much about flowers but it’s a nice break away from technology.

9 thoughts on “Data Smog

  1. Bix Post author

    I forgot reading the news. How could I forget that? There are probably lots of things to do online that I forgot. Like writing a blog…


  2. mboydp

    Yes, I take breaks from technology (excepting your blog! 😉 ). When I do, I read both for pleasure and for research. Real books. And I garden as much as my bad back allows. Nice marigolds!


  3. Marj

    I used to pay great attention to what Dr Weil had to say and remember that advice. Now, with the huge daily assault of (usually distressing) news from all these sources, I have great intentions but still want to know the latest. Not slavish devotion to social media but to online newspapers, and tv. Still though enough is enough and am trying for more silence in an effort to smell the roses. Speaking of that, would love to have your very nice pot of marigolds right here on my deck!


  4. Bix Post author

    I think people will say that Dr. Weil is being an old fogie here. In a way, they’re right. Maybe he resists too much? But he’s from a generation that lived very full lives without the technology that is pervasive today. So he sees it possible to live without it, or maybe to live with it as just an aid.

    Today’s generation doesn’t know life without the internet, I mean, it’s in their blood, and hearing things like, “a simpler cell phone that does not contain a vast array of attractive, distracting “apps.” ” is just ludicrous.

    But in another way, they (people who would criticize Weil) are wrong. Technology is changing us in ways that are not 100% good. Just this morning, Tds commented about artificial blue light affecting our circadian rhythms. Technology is changing our bodies, our brains, and we don’t yet appreciate the extent of it.


  5. Marj

    Yes, one does wonder what is actually happening to the bodies of younger generations devoted to their devices. Time will tell I guess, but there are some efforts to change. An article the other day said that in England (at Eton no less) they must turn in cell phones in evening and then pick up in a.m. And without much protest surprisingly. Interesting..


  6. forumholitorium

    Nice term, data smog, and appropriate. Your post reminds me of a practice I tried a few times last year, what I called “media fasting.” I set aside a 24 hour period over the weekend in which I turned off my cell phone (my only phone), didn’t turn my computer on, and didn’t read. Though an avid and passionate reader, I found it important not to read to recover from too many words. I am a freelance translator, which means I spend my working hours in front of a screen and researching terminology online. An early bird and by no means a night owl, I only work or use the computer during daylight hours as I am very concerned about the effects of blue light, and I try to limit my “normal” light exposure in the evenings as well – especially during winter.

    As for what I did instead during my media fasts: cleaning and tidying up (I had a sudden surge of interest in this as soon as it got quiet!), knitting, going on walks, catching up on sleep, simply sitting and relaxing. As I write this reply, I ask myself why I actually stopped doing this. Will try again soon!

    One question I have as I see young people hunched over their smart phones is how much sooner they will start to have back muscle and vision issues. Has anyone studied this yet?

    Thanks once again for the interesting post! This is one of the few blogs I regularly read.


    1. Bix Post author

      It’s weird how just reading this: “knitting, going on walks, catching up on sleep, simply sitting and relaxing.” is calming.

      Vision issues … One reason I’ve stopped using a cell phone is that the text is so small that when I look away I can barely focus. It takes several minutes and even then it’s not as it was. You don’t realize how much you’re squinting and hunching until you stop.



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