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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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