From petroglyphs to clickbait

Before getting up from my bed and having breakfast this morning, I was able to look through the news feed of Telegram and read a few long articles about the future, space flights and new technologies. I think that the amount of information I consumed was more than people could consume throughout, say, the year of 1656. This is what the modern world is like – information is everywhere, and our heads may swim when we think how much it is. However, we have invented and adopted the rules of our own game. So, now we have to consume terabytes of information, keep looking at the news feeds of social networks, communicate more often in messengers than personally, passionately following what is happening in the world and worrying about the people we have never seen or talked to in person but know about their existence only from the internet.

However, that was not always so…

Once we people did not know what it was like to live in a big city, what Apple smartphones and Elon Musk’s electric cars were. Human life was different then – we slept where we could, we ate what we could lay our hands on and often died before we were thirty. Hunger, unknown diseases, enemy tribes and saber-toothed tigers made our lives shorter and more dangerous. Time was slow and viscous, and thus even a thirty-years life seemed a long time worth a whole life.

Under such conditions, the information spread slowly. To tell a story and say something important, one had to have a personal talk with each tribesman individually. A cave with a hearth in the middle was a place where one could find out the latest news and interact with information from outside. All the remaining time, the man remained alone.

Before the man invented writing systems, the information spread rate depended on the man’s traveling speed

When people learned to scribe on clay tablets and on cave walls, it became easier for them to spread information. Now, if they wanted to tell the others about the death of a tribesman or about a bug hunt, they did not have to remember all and share the information personally.

Then people invented the wheel, started to build big cities, crossed seas and oceans, and explored new territories. The invention of book printing that followed forever changed the format of information consumption. Even though books were first accessible only to the nobility and few people were able to read them, that invention became a real revolution.

Finally, the technological progress made books accessible to all, newspapers appeared, radio was invented, followed by television and eventually by the internet. Due to it, the information spread rate grew, and now its volumes double every 18 months.

In 2003, Hal Varian conducted a study in the UC Berkeley School of Information to find out that over the five previous years the mankind had produced more information than over the entire preceding history. And that was in 2003! Much time has passed since then, the internet has become a routine without which we cannot imagine our lives, nearly everyone has a smartphone, social networks take more and more of our time, and video and music are available in the streaming services 24/7. There is more information now, and the speed of its propagation has become even higher.

The technological revolution has made information available to all – our ancestors could only dream about it.

However, there is another side…

1. Information is available to all, but it is difficult to find something useful in it.

Morning news, radio, social networks, instant messages in messengers, billboards along the roads – we learn more than our ancestors did only on the way from home to work. This is the modern world. The amount of information has grown so fast that our brain is unable to absorb it. If you want to find something necessary in this flow, you will have to try hard.

See for yourselves. Earlier it was enough to borrow a book from a library or to read a scroll in a temple – the book or the scroll was the only source of information available. Now there are billions of such sources. For each query, Google produces a multitude of results, which are opinions, comments, and links to articles and websites. To choose something from it is a challenge, as information will not necessarily turn out to be true.

A good example is news based on rumors and unconfirmed information. More than once have we witnessed the facts when mass media, bloggers and social networks “played” with facts and data. As a result, people believe in unbelievable things.

Now we do not distinguish between truth and lies

To overcome this trend, Facebook, which has recently been the target of all kinds of criticism, is taking measures to counter this flux of false information. Every day, the company deletes millions of false accounts, learns new methods of checking photos and videos and works with professional journalists. All this is done not to allow spread of false information in the world.

2. Information is entertainment and a way to get distracted from important things.

A large amount and variety of information have resulted in the fact that we have stopped distinguishing between what we need and what is information trash. What was originally meant to serve a good purpose and develop us now only interrupts and torpedoes our activity. Entertaining articles, funny videos with cats and dogs in YouTube, a continuous flow of pictures in Instagram and news generated every minute – all this distracts our attention, takes away our precious time and overburdens our brain.

For most people, consumption of information is entertainment and a way to get distracted from important things. Nothing more than that.

3. We can no longer concentrate.

At the beginning of the 20th century, films were slow and unhurried. Yet, people watched them with pleasure, as they perceived cinema as real magic, and each visit to a cinema was a meaningful event for them. However, as time went, people were bored to watch slow films. Therefore, film directors began to reduce the duration of cuts. That made films more dynamic. Then more time passed, and people got tired of this, too. Film directors reduced the duration of cuts, again.

Therefore, modern films are so different from the classical cinema of the 20th century. Compare the films by Andrey Tarkovsky and the blockbusters by Michael Bay. Tarkovsky’s films seem slow, meditative, and even boring to the modern viewers, while in the movies of Bay the action is so “condensed” that, if we get distracted for a second, we will lose the track of action. The average length of a shot in Michael Bay films is 2 seconds only.

A huge amount of information around has brought about a whole generation of people with the so-called “clip thinking”, or “mosaic thinking”, to whom it takes only several seconds to form an opinion of what they see. So, we have gradually lost the skill of concentrating our attention on something for a long time.

This is confirmed by numerous studies. For example, in 2000 Microsoft found out that the average duration of concentration by a human was only 12 seconds. In 2015, the study showed that duration of human concentration got reduced to 8 seconds, less than that of goldfish.

4. The formats of information consumption are constantly changing.

In the old time, we scribbled our messages on cave walls and clay tablets. Then we started to write on paper and publish books. Now we press the keys on the keyboards of our computers or push the buttons of our smartphones. Technologies are developing, and the ways of delivering and consuming information are changing in the wake of the technological progress.

What do we see today?

The customary formats of the last century are being replaced with the new ones. The radio, press and television are losing their customers. Everyone is gradually coming online. Why do we need a radio or a television at home, if we have smartphones? Why should we go outside to buy a newspaper or a magazine, if their versions are available online?

All this leads to changes. Now people prefer to consume “convenient” information: instead of long articles, we listen to podcasts and read digests of news, instead of long videos on YouTube, we read short stories on Instagram, instead of reading texts, we prefer looking at pictures. I think the trend is that the number of formats of consuming information will get reduced in the future, and information itself will become simpler.

5. People have forgotten how to remember.

Beginning with our childhood, we learn to perceive clear, logical and well-structured information. The tales we hear from our moms before going to bed, the process of tuition, chapters in the textbooks and classes at school – all these activities have a clear-cut structure, their own algorithms, the beginning and the end. We train our brain to perceive only this kind of information.

However, in the adult world we cannot always see the whole picture. Every day, we consume large amounts of information, and normally we see and hear scattered pieces of stories, news, rumors and events taken out from their contexts and retold to us by our friends and colleagues. This information does not present an integral picture, but our brain assembles the pieces into one puzzle. As time goes, this results in the brain fatigue, when our brain gets “tired” and stops remembering all the information that is delivered.

So, people have stopped remembering the details and get concentrated only on the essence of things.

What next?

Technologies will continue to develop, and there will be more and more information to come. We can only wonder how our attitude to consumption of information may change. Yet, it seems to me that people will get divided into two types: the supporters and the opponents of the new formats of information consumption. While the supporters will continue to try and learn everything about everything, the opponents will form the “digital opposition” and will prefer their information menu to become limited.

I do not think we should now choose the army to join. We should simply understand why we need information and choose that format of consuming information which will not result in overloading of our brain. In the end, we must accept this brave new world and enjoy its gifts.

Rustem Alamanov

Autor of the Blog "Almaty — My First Love", Editor, Columnist of "The Village Kazakhstan" and "".





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