Content Overload or Evolution?

June 9, 2011 3:06 pm

Is technology a help or a hindrance when it comes to peace, happiness and basic human functioning?

In a recent post on her blog, Sarah Wilson discussed an essay by David Malouf entitled ‘The Happy Life’, which appeared in the Quarterly Essay. Specifically, Wilson described a theory Malouf put forward that ‘part of our unease, our contemporary unhappiness, comes from having so much of our life occurring at a speed that our bodies are not aligned with’.

She went on to explain Malouf’s hypothesis (with which she agrees) that we relate everything back to our bodies and, being ‘bone heavy creatures’, we are happiest when life goes at a pace that our bodies can keep up with.

The idea that there is too much, too fast, too often in life – and that it is this sensory overload that causes our discontent – is a view shared by many. The Internet and technology, naturally, often lie at the centre of this discussion, due to the ever-increasing volume of content we now have in our lives. In fact, one of Wilson’s recommendations is that ‘it might be good to create limits to how big your life gets – limit the depth of the rabbit hole you descend down when on the Internet, narrow your reading choices online.’

Yet the idea of reading less in order to achieve greater contentment rankles. Surely one of the underpinnings of human evolution is the quest for knowledge? Surely sectioning ourselves off from new ideas is not the path to lasting happiness?

TEDx Sydney 2011

Managing content is the key

A more holistic approach to the issue is how to manage the increased volume of content to which we’re now exposed. A huge pile of boxes sitting in your living room looks cluttered. It causes unease. But the right system applied to sorting and storing and using what is in those boxes can enrich your home and your life.

The recent TEDxSydney conference saw the issue of content management raised through the subject of smartphones. Professor David Chalmers, director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University, brought out the old cyborg chestnut, with sound reasoning. He argued that the iPhone has become an extension of our consciousness, of our brain, in much the same way that a prosthetic limb becomes an extension of the body.

‘In some sense, the iPhone is literally becoming part of your mind… the iPhone’s memory is basically my memory,’ he said.

He’s got a point. Because while the iPhone (and its less-trendy but equally capable android cousins) can provide the vehicle for an increased amount of content traffic from the ether into our brains, they also provide a return route, whereby we can spring-clean the content that is no longer necessary to hold in our heads.

Chalmers pointed out in his talk that information such as people’s phone numbers, or directions, or spatial awareness no longer requires brain-space. We store that information in our smartphones, which frees up the cerebral real estate for more abstract and creative pursuits.

While there’s no denying that the infinite content now available to us has the potential to cause a kind of paralysis of choice, the debate needs to be on ways in which the flow can be managed, not on whether we should simply try to block it out.


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