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Information Pollution Alert! Living with Data Smog

Information Pollution Alert! Living with Data Smog

Information Pollution Alert! Living with Data Smog

    We are a nation awash in data smog. This is more than just information overload — it’s not just that there’s too much information out there for one person to adequately encompass, it’s that there’s too much data out there to even make out the information clearly, let alone to evaluate and act on that information.

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    What’s worse is that unlike normal smog, which is the unintentional byproduct of our need to burn things to provide energy, much of the data smog is intentional. We aren’t supposed to be able to see clearly! Between pernicious advertising, ideological pronouncements, and allegedly entertaining “infotainment products”, we’re being bombarded with data explicitly intended to dull out senses and distract us from clear thinking about important matters.

    This is not a conspiracy theory — it’s straight out of Marketing 101! Rational, considering actors make lousy consumers; deliberation and cautious evaluation muck up the democratic process; critical analysis makes the powerful look foolish. Marketing wants none of that! No, far better to engage the impulses, to feed the primal emotions of fear and longing, to get in and out in the blink of an eye.

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    Here’s a couple of examples:

    Dumb Parents (Don’t) Rule!

    Watch a kids TV show recently? Watch a few? You might have noticed a trend — dumb parents. Uncool, hapless, clumsy, dorky, way-out-there dumb parents. Remember the parents of yore? The Bradies, the Cleavers, even the Wah-Wah-Wahing parents of the Charlie Brown universe? They were pretty with it — voices of sanity and authority in an adult world kids struggled to grasp. Not any more — today’s TV parents are hopeless.

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    Why? Because that’s what media producers’ customers want. Not the kids — viewers aren’t customers, they’re product. You don’t buy Jimmy Neutron. The advertisers whose spots fill the commercial breaks during Jimmy Neutron buy you — the cartoon is just a way to get enough of you watching to make it worth the advertisers’ buck. Well, not you — your kids. You’re just a wallet with legs — what they really want is to show your kids really cool stuff that they’ll get you to buy. And of course, you’re going to say “No”. That’s where the show’s content comes in — your kids have just spent 4 hours learning that parents are uncool idiots who say “No” to all the coolest stuff.

    Pay no attention to the scientist behind the curtain…

    Why would an oil company like Exxon-Mobil fund global warming research? Anyone with half a brain knows that they’re only going to publish research that’s favorable to them. Why would a tobacco company fund research on second-hand smoke? Again, it only takes a 40-watt brain to realize that their results are going to be biased in their favor. Yet both petroleum companies and tobacco companies spend millions on research that nobody can possibly take seriously.

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    They don’t do it for love of science, obviously. Nor do they do it to convince you, or me, or anyone that smoking’s good for you and burning coal saves penguin lives. They hire scientists and churn out biased research to muddy the waters, pure and simple. Knowing that oil companies pay scientists to put out bogus climate change research calls into question the objectivity of all scientists — who’s to say that the scientists saying that burning coal is bad for the environment aren’t just as biased as the petroleum-backed scientists saying it’s not? Certainly not you — you’re no scientist! It’s perfectly logical, then, to conclude that “nobody knows for sure” and that it’s all just a political dance.

    Dealing with data smog

    Amid all this fear, uncertainty, and doubt-mongering, one thing’s absolutely sure: it’s going to get worse. And I don’t mean “it’s going to get worse before it gets better”; it may never get better. As more and more ways for data to reach us become prevalent (there will be more and more apps for that!), there will be more and more ways to obscure what’s important amid what’s urgent, like buying things.

    So we have to learn to deal with it, to sort through the come-ons and the panic-inducing attacks and find the information that actually makes our lives better. Here’s a crash course in smog survival:

    • Get educated: The most important step in dealing with data smog is to build up your mental toolkit, and that means getting educated. There’s a reason that Jefferson saw education as the cornerstone of a functioning democracy.
    • Share your ideas with others: Community can be a great protection from malevolent data. Tell people what you’re thinking to avoid the echo effect of standing alone in a tunnel, where only you hear your ideas coming back to you. Suddenly “I’m going to buy a sports car” doesn’t seem like such a great way of dealing with your pattern baldness, does it?
    • Winnow news sources to one or two trusted daily sources (local and national paper, for example) and three or four less frequent analytical sources (magazines, mostly). In their quest to differentiate themselves, news outlets pour on all sorts of gloss and glitter (everything except actual analysis, it seems), but they’re really reporting the same stuff as everyone else — probably from the same wire. Get what you need and move on.
    • Learn marketing techniques: Learn what makes your news sources and other information sources attractive to their customers (advertisers) and take that into account. Read up on how marketers do their job, so you can identify when marketing techniques are being used on you. Try Robert Cialdini’s classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion for a good primer.
    • Follow the money: Find out who paid for research and what the payers’ goals are. Most academic books and articles list this in the acknowledgements (for books) or the footnotes (for articles); for mainstream books, you may have to check the references.
    • Follow the interests: Ask who a story seems to help, and how.
    • Consume critically: Ask yourself if the opposite conclusion is possible, and how your source deals with that possibility. Biased sources usually ignore or belittle opposing viewpoints, instead of engaging them. But it’s rarely likely that the other side is stupid or in some sort of conspiracy.
    • Does it matter? Maybe this should be the first thing you ask, about anything. It’s easy to get caught up in things that ultimately don’t matter. That’s OK if you’re just having fun, but not much to build a life on.

    This isn’t anything like a comprehensive response to data smog — at best it’s Data Smog 101. But it’s a start — and we need a start, because the alternative is getting less and less informed about the real world around us. Maybe you have some ideas? Let’s hear ’em in the comments.

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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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