Everyday we go toe-to-toe with information overload. Never has so much information been available right at our finger tips. But it isn’t just too much information, it’s too much of a lot of things: food, free time, and entertainment to name a few. Previously, we consumed scarce goods, now we are consumed by abundance.
It’s not that abundance is inherently bad, to the contrary, we should rejoice. The problem is that abundance has negative side effects that go unobserved. I’ll give two examples and allow you to note others.
First, the glut of information. So much is known about the world that it greatly exceeds the amount any person can fully comprehend. As a result, there is always some new study that we have no ability to put into context and therefore determine it’s veracity. Instead of a cohesive whole of information, we are presented with discontinuous facts. “What’s that? A study says that running gives you heart attacks… Must be true because a scientist said it.” This leaves us living in a fragmented world and makes us susceptible to others who feign understanding with confidence.
Second, the glut of material goods. We have so many things, yet we live in deeper fear. Some of this is simply associated with loss aversion — it is harder for us to lose what we have than the pleasure we see from gains. But it’s also related to our own information overload. Most of our basic instincts for fear are based on whether we can recall vividly something like it happening before (called the availability heuristic). This is why people are afraid to fly (we hear about every plane accident) but not afraid to drive (we don’t hear about all the driving fatalities). This leaves us open to fearing all the tragic things on the news. While I have lived in Mexico, I’m in awe of how many people think I’m going to die in some drug shoot out next week. Nothing of the sort is ever likely to happen, but thanks to the news this is all people hear.
We are fragmented and we are afraid, not because of what we lack, but instead because of the abundance that we have. Being aware of the impact of abundance can help us deal with it better. The problem is that we often don’t even see how we are affected, and instead find ourselves more lost and more afraid and not confident and grateful.