The Content Conundrum

January 18, 2013

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I have a love-hate relationship with content. One of my favorite things as an information designer is to dive into piles of content, analyze it, look for patterns, and visualize the stories buried within. The process of transforming raw content into usable information is not unlike the alchemical transmutation of lead into gold, and for nerds like me, no less magical.

But it’s a whole different ballgame when it comes to generating and managing my own content: there’s never enough content flowing out of my brain, and there’s far too much to squeeze in. Despite all the inspiration I get wandering through libraries and bookstores, visiting museums, and poring over countless websites, I can’t seem to channel all that creative fuel into sustained output. Equally vexing is the information bottleneck between all the unread books, Evernoted articles, RSS feeds, and random PDFs I’ve hoarded and my helplessly low-bandwidth brain (speed reading isn’t my strong suit). For every article I actually do read in the course of a day, I probably find about five more to add to the queue.

This predicament is just one symptom of a larger problem I call the content conundrum — the opposing, imbalanced urges and behaviors that characterize our current technology-driven relationship with content. Some of these examples might sound familiar:

  • Constantly accumulating more content than you can realistically get through… in a lifetime
  • Feeling simultaneously motivated by a wealth of great content and paralyzed to make productive use of it
  • Storing large amounts of content in many different places, but dreading to go looking for anything (Googling it instead)
  • Sharing content frequently on blogs and social media to stay relevant, but feeling overwhelmed by people who overshare or re-share the same things

What’s particularly fascinating to me, and confounding, is the peculiar psychology of the whole phenomenon — the paradoxes and contradictions that many of us voluntarily participate in every day around content, and which are just widely-accepted consequences of living in the Information Age. With the fluidity of information and always-on access becoming a comfortable reality, the hunger for content is never satisfied; as soon as one curiosity is indulged, a new one is born. Such is the perpetual craving for mental stimulation: find, consume, digest, repeat — hence the troubling rise of “snackable content.” Thanks to services like Evernote and Instapaper, whatever doesn’t get uploaded to the memory bank right away can be saved for later, whenever that happens to be. Technology doesn’t just enable us to do what we want — it passively aids and abets our bad habits and uncontrolled tendencies. As long as there’s storage space, we’ll keep filling it up. And as publishing becomes more effortless, we’ll keep loading up those servers to our heart’s content with every type of content we please, from food photos to PhD theses.

I’m not entirely sure if the content conundrum is simply the early stage of a tech/web maturity model, only a few decades old, or if it’s really an age-old phenomenon propelled by the printing press and intensified by our high-speed, web-powered lifestyles. Either way, it’s still a human problem with very real consequences. The more time and effort we spend warehousing content and repacking it into nuggets to scatter across the web, the less time we spend reflecting on the commodity itself: Is it lead? Is it gold? Does it matter any more? That also means the less time we’re investing in cultivating the stillness of mind to process and synthesize what we do absorb, so that we might convert it to useful knowledge and creativity. It would be a worthwhile exercise to compare the number of times a day spent gobbling up and firing off content nuggets (e-mails, tweets, Facebook posts, etc) versus the moments of deep concentration. Then compare the feeling and physical sensation produced by both types of activities. As Louis C.K. might put it, web surfing isn’t over when you feel tired and your eyes are weary. Web surfing is over when you hate yourself. But those hard-won “aha’s” after long stretches of serious thought? Priceless.

We will continue to struggle with content for a long time. Technology will further optimize the content cycle, making output (not necessarily creation) more rapid and access more ubiquitous. Humans, however, are locked in a molasses-slow evolutionary process; unlike the speedy timescales for software and hardware upgrades, our own wetware takes considerably longer to show any significant changes, and they aren’t always bug-free. If we insist on moving at the pace of technology, we’ll need a hefty boost from neuroscience and a broader mainstream acceptance of transhumanism. A recent take on such a future, the H+ digital series on YouTube, paints a more grim than promising picture of the broken boundary between consciousness and connectedness, made possible by a tiny but powerful implant that links the nervous system to the internet. I think I’ll pass on that if it ever comes true.

Are we doomed, like the lotus eaters of Homer’s Odyssey, to remain victims to our own appetites and become trapped in a content-saturated lull? Or will we eventually crack the content conundrum and learn to manage our content and ourselves better?


3 Comments »

  1. Couldn’t agree more. It is a true conundrum. And the Odyssey reference is very apt – could all the potential gain be nothing but a siren’s call?

    Comment by Nancy — January 21, 2013 @ 6:51 am
  2. Thanks for reading, Nancy. Indeed, the lure of more information doesn’t always translate to more knowledge or benefit — just more time whiled away in front of a screen. The “endless scroll” feature on many Tumblr sites comes to mind.

    As I was writing this, I realized there are many relevant Odyssey references, including the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and the perilous journey itself. For the sake of brevity, I stuck with my favorite one. ;-)

    Comment by Michael — January 21, 2013 @ 9:58 am
  3. I’m very happy to have found your site (via the Mind Mapping site)!

    I felt the need to respond to this article because it struck a rather sensitive chord with me. You see, after years of trying to deal with declining cognitive abilities, I finally found out I have MS. The good news? It wasn’t me going crazy or early (by decades!) senility. The bad news? Definite brain damage.

    However, now that I know what the issue is, I’ve been trying to find new ways of learning and retaining information as my former techniques are definitely not working anymore. Many years I ago, I’d heard of, and played with, things Mind Mapping and other visual aides to help with information processing and recall. At the time, they struck me as well, kind of silly. Like something you would show your child as colouring alternative when they were bored and you didn’t want to hear The Lion King movie blaring through the house yet again. Needless to say, I’ve since changed my tune, and will happily use anything I can that might help.

    As you say, this is the Information Age and we are inundated with new content from every direction. And one thread always leads to dozens of others, which then means plowing through it all to find the tiny bits that are actually helpful! But articles like this help to remind me to slow down, take a breath and realize that even “healthy” people are struggling to keep pace in our hyper-connected culture.

    It is both refreshing and comforting to hear that even information specialists like yourself run into the same issues I do when trying to digest, remember and recall the pertinent data when needed, after having to plow through the immense of superfluous content to find it in the first place!

    So thank you, Michael, for this entertaining and informative article!

    Comment by Wordsgood — March 14, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

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