In Defense of Human Experience over Digital Information

And that man comes on the radio
And he’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no

-“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Rolling Stones

Reading about the latest presidential drama; checking the score from the game last night (or refreshing the score of the game right now); checking up on our fantasy sports team (or refreshing the score of our current fantasy sports competition); scrolling through our Facebook feeds, our Twitter feeds, and our Instragram feeds; visiting our favorite blog for the fourth time in the same day.

We crave information, in all its forms. Humans have always craved information. But what’s unique about our lives today is that there’s so goddamned much of it. So many ways to scroll, check, and refresh—all in search of different forms of digital information. Some of the information is from friends and family and loved ones. But most of it is from by people we either have never known, will never meet, or barely know.

The sheer volume of information we have today is so great that it is crowding out our actual experience of life. We spend so much time and attention on this information, that we experience life less. This post explains why it is so important for people today to constantly work to choose life over an endless stream of digital information.  

I.

As social creatures, we are wholly dependent on culturally inherited information to survive. This is as true for us today as it was for our ancestors. From the moment we are born, we are told what to eat, what to do, and how to live. Some of this information is literally a matter of life and death. This fruit is delicious and this fruit can kill you. This plant smells wonderful and this plant stings and will make you suffer for a long time. This snake is innocuous and this snake can kill you. And so on.

We aren’t born with this information; it isn’t in our genes. But we learn it from the moment we are born. And so we are programmed, through dopamine triggers and other evolutionary mechanisms, to want to acquire as much of this critical information as possible.

But alas, capitalism is an optimization process that is designed to make things as rewarding as possible. And so there are many companies whose sole purpose is to become better and better at optimizing for the attention triggers for the information that we have evolved to crave.

Information isn’t good and it isn’t bad. Information is just distilled human experience, shared and disseminated from one person to another.

If you have more and better information about where to find food and resources, you may live a longer and healthier life. There is no question that the right kind of information can lead you to prosper. And so it is logical that we should be programmed to seek out more and better information.

But just as our craving for sweet and salty foods are adaptive for hunter gatherers, but have been manipulated by modern food-makers to make us fat, so too has our adaptive desire for better information been manipulated by attention merchants to make us intellectual zombies. It’s just another form of hyperstimulus that we all poorly suited to resist.

Knowing up-to-the-minute sports scores at all times is not healthy or adaptive. Daily information updates about your classmates from middle school is not healthy or adaptive. But once we get used to knowing that information, we physically start to crave it. Our dopamine triggers don’t know the difference between information that helps us survive and information that is totally unhelpful. In fact, it is almost certainly true that we are inclined to choose the useless information over the information that will help us survive, because the useless information has been packaged in a way to appeal to our evolutionary instincts, in a much stronger, powerful, and sexier way than information that helps us survive.

III.

And so for many of us, the sheer volume of information we consume is replacing our actual experience of life. Scroll, check, refresh, repeat.

But all of this digital information, it’s all just distilled and alienated human experience. All of this information is the copy of life. Your actual experience is the original.

Information is not life. Eating, drinking, swimming, playing, running, jumping, fucking, singing, smiling, breathing, laughing—that’s the stuff of life. Scrolling, posting, tweeting, browsing, watching, refreshing—that’s just a copy.

I say choose the original, not the copy.

Information is crucial to survival. But it is critical to remember that always and should everywhere, information should be subservient to the primary object of life—the cultivation, development, and appreciation of real-life human experience.