Way, Way Too Much Information

Frank Bures
From the May/June 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Back in the early 1990s—the age of pagers and dial-up modems—I read an essay that changed my life. In "Thinking About Earthworms," author David Quammen described the concept of the global mind. Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who dubbed it the "noosphere," meaning an atmosphere of thought) considered this collective consciousness "wonderful," but Quammen urged his readers to resist its pull. He advised us to spend some time in our own minds, to turn off our televisions and think about things no one else was thinking about—earthworms, for example.

In 2002 human beings created five exabytes of data—or thirty-seven thousand times the amount of information stored in the Library of Congress.

As a writer, I have always strived to carve out this place where I can think my own thoughts, where I can let all that's rolling around in my mind congeal into something (hopefully) new and interesting. But if that was difficult to do two decades ago, when Quammen wrote his piece, it's a million times more difficult now.

Today, it seems that we have access to an unlimited amount of information all the time, and for those of us who want to be alone with our thoughts, that information is getting harder and harder to avoid. According to a 2003 study by the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2002 human beings created five exabytes of data—or thirty-seven thousand times the amount of information stored in the Library of Congress.

Just last year the International Data Corporation released a study that estimated global data creation at 161 exabytes in 2006 (picture twelve stacks of copies of War and Peace, piled from here to the sun), and predicted that by 2010 the number will reach 988 exabytes. Also in 2006, 1.1 billion people were using the Internet regularly, checking approximately 1.6 billion e-mail accounts. And even as Americans continue to watch an average of eight hours and eleven minutes of television each week, time spent online rose 24 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to a study by the online market research firm Compete, Inc.

This avalanche of information is threatening to swallow us whole, to waste our days, and to overwhelm our own thoughts. Essentially, it's the noosphere on steroids. What does all this mean for writers? It means that from the comfort of our own chairs we can research the hell out of whatever we're writing, while keeping up on the latest celebrity scandals, political polls, and the flood of e-mail. But a growing body of research shows that we pay a price for this constant stream of information. More and more of us suffer from a condition sometimes called "digital information overload," or "infomania." The bottom line: Our brains simply are not wired for taking in so many things at once.

A study published in 2005 by the King's College London suggests that the distractions of e-mail and text messaging effectively rob your functional IQ of ten points. Another study, done at Kansas State University, suggests that watching "the crawl"—the stream of headlines scrolling across the lower portion of the television screen—reduces memory retention by roughly 10 percent, and a brain imaging study at Carnegie Mellon showed that when performing two tasks at once, a person's brain activity is only 56 percent of what it was when that person focused on the two activities separately. In other words, when you try to do too many things or are too distracted, your brain simply doesn't work as well.

There is another, perhaps more important consideration for writers: the loss of creative space. In his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less (Ecco, 1999), Guy Claxton cites several studies that point to an "unconscious intelligence," which works while our mind is disengaged or working on something else entirely. Ideas emerge from a kind of creative womb, one that works while we are focused on some mundane physical task, like walking, or riding a train, or staring at the ocean. Just letting the mind run.

But if simply staring at the ocean and allowing your unconscious intelligence to do its work is difficult in this age of too much information, there is another state beyond that, which has become—speaking for myself, at least—even harder to attain: flow. As described by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, it's a state of mind in which you are so engaged in an activity that you lose track of time—even lose track of yourself. You forget about everything around you and wake up kind of surprised to find yourself back in your room. The state of flow is when your best work gets done, and when writing becomes really fun.

But can writers—in spite of the constant pull of e-mail, cell phones, and TiVo—carve out the space for this to happen? In 2003, psychologists at the University of Toronto and Harvard found that creative people are much more likely to have what's called low "latent inhibition," the ability to look at an incoming piece of information, classify it, and then discard it automatically if experience has shown it is likely to be irrelevant. "The brains of creative people," they wrote, "appear to be more open to incoming stimuli," and more likely to remain in contact with that stimuli for longer.

This is good news for those of us who are trying to create something original out of the material of life, but what does it mean for our ability to stay on task and actually create it? Could one of the building blocks of creativity—an openness to new and interesting things—become an obstruction?

Tom Bissell, author of the memoir The Father of All Things (Pantheon Books, 2007), seems to think so. He plans to move to Estonia, in part to escape the digital distractions of American life. "I'm nowhere near as effective or diligent a writer I was only a few years ago," he says. "The two best places I've ever worked were the high Canadian Arctic and Vietnam. In neither place did I have easy Internet availability or any other similar distractions. This cannot be a coincidence."

Like Bissell, author Pico Iyer is drawn to remote places in order to avoid some of the common distractions of civilization. The author of The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Knopf, 2008) lives in rural Japan, where he has no cell phone, no car or bicycle, and gets no newspapers, no magazines, and no English-language television. "A day without any of these beeping distractions," Iyer says, "seems to open up to the point where I can often spend eight hours writing, and another hour or so taking care of business through e-mails—and still have time for an hour or two of playing Ping-Pong, a couple of long walks around the neighborhood, and at least an hour of sitting out in the sun reading a good novel."

Not everyone goes to such extremes, but many do. Nathan Englander, who isolated himself for the years he was writing his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf, 2007), says that "the biggest thing is you have to be able to not answer your phone, not check your e-mails, not check your texts for a few hours. If you can't, you're just not going to do it."

Of course, there are writers who don't seem too bothered by technological distractions. "With a strong, compelling idea in mind, I'm not distracted by the world," says Chuck Palahniuk, whose ninth novel, Snuff, is out this month from Doubleday. "Conversely, if an idea is so weak that I can't ignore the world, then that story's not going to lift and distract my readers from those same demands for their attention. If I can write in a crowded airport, then my work can be read in that same setting.... Plus, I only check the e-mails on Monday and Friday."

I wondered how Quammen was holding up, all these years later, in the twenty-four-hour blogo-cyber-mediasphere. So I dialed information, the old-fashioned way, and called him at his home in Bozeman, Montana.

"I do have a cell phone now," Quammen admits. "And I have a TV hidden away upstairs, but it doesn't get any channels. It's more of a box that plays movies. I'm still out of the loop enough that I've never seen a video replay of the space shuttle explosion, and I've still never seen a video replay of the twin towers falling. I happened to be at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on 9/11, so I completely missed that."

Still, Quammen says, he uses e-mail every day and loves being able to contact his wife and parents while he's traveling abroad. But when he sits down to write, he turns off his phone.

"For me," he says, "that's one of the most crucial things for writing: When you sit down for those two hours or five hours to write, you turn off the telephone and are not accessible to every person who decides to dial your number. But e-mail still gets through."

Even Quammen has been pulled, as he says, "kicking and screaming into this connectedness."

Frank Bures has written for Esquire, Tin House, World Hum, and other publications.