Americans consumed about 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008. You can bet the UK isn’t far behind.
That’s an enormous volume of information: the difference between 0.3 and 3.6 zettabytes is ten times the number of grains of sand on the earth.
This volume of information is apparent every day, in our bulging inboxes, our enormous choice of TV channels and an endless list of results on Google.
It’s no longer information overload. It’s filter failure.
There is chaos on the information superhighway. We can't see the wood from the trees. Facts do not exist any more, because every fact has an anti-fact on the web.
We create our own belief bubbles, our brains are mush and we are driven by what the smart phone tells us. It’s a cocktail for disaster. Or is it?
In Smarter than you think: how technology is changing our minds for the better, author Clive Thompson talks about how technology and the internet makes us smarter and better.
His argument is convincing. Technology provides eternal memory, where we can recall anything and learn from it. And it creates cognitive diversity, providing a place to test, discuss and distribute our thinking with all knowledge at our fingertips.
Technology has also made us more literate. We are writing and reading more than ever with texts, emails, tweets and so on, but tech is also creating different types of literacy.
With video, images, data and — soon — 3D printing, the internet and technology is giving us more rich ways to express ourselves.
If you put it that way, it is difficult to argue. However, Thompson does make reference to the fear of missing out (FOMO) syndrome, the dangers of constant distraction and the need to be mindful and aware of how you think.
And that brings me to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, fast and slow. His advice? Regularly step out of this stream of digital information. Take time to slow down. Meditate. Relax.
Kahneman thinks that, in future, we may all benefit from our own digital assistants. He cites Watson, the supercomputer that can play guess-the-question quiz show Jeopardy.
The technology behind Watson is now being used to help doctors diagnose patients based on the answers they give.
In five years, you could have Watson on your phone. It will be your digital, ambient, super-smart digital assistant who can help with your memory, knowledge, thinking and a lot more.
And what will happen then? Well, once you have a powerful new tool for finding answers, you can think of harder problems to solve.
News came this week that much-mooted plans for wireless internet access on London’s Underground are going full steam ahead in time for the Olympics.
Passengers at over 80 Tube stations will be able to log on while moving through stations and waiting for their trains.
On the face of it, this is A Good Thing. For a start, long-suffering commuters will be pleased they can check the exact reason for the delay on their smart phone or even fire off a complaint to Boris Johnson while stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the platform.
You’ll also be able to email your client if you’re running late for an important meeting with them or grab a map of your destination while on the escalator instead of having to wait till you’re back on the surface. If the connection is good enough, making calls via voice over IP services like Skype could be possible.
On the downside, I’m predicting an increase in the number of accidents on escalators as people check their tweets rather than watching where they’re going. We could even see the odd person attempting to use their full-size laptop on the platform.
(If you think that sounds farfetched, my experience suggests otherwise: I once saw a man playing a game of online poker on his laptop while simultaneously negotiating the ticket barriers and escalators at Reading Station, so anything’s possible.)
But as faster internet connections seep into every area of our lives, do we need to start guarding those precious moments when we’re cut off? Should we treasure those increasingly rare minutes when we’re out of signal, offline and unlikely to be disturbed by a buzz in our pocket or someone else’s loud Nokia ringtone? (Watch the video up to the 1:20 mark to make it worthwhile.)
I’m honestly in two minds about this. On the one hand, wireless internet has transformed the way many of us work. Within the office it’s brought extra flexibility to how we conduct meetings and work with colleagues. In the wider world, it’s this technology that enables us to stop for a coffee and catch up on email or get online even when we’re travelling.
But the flipside is that it’s much harder for us to switch off. Queuing in Starbucks? You’re much more likely to check your email or review your tweets than just stopping to look around you.
On the train? Never mind sitting there quietly to collect your thoughts or getting stuck into reading a complex document. With wireless internet available on many UK services, you’re more likely to get distracted by Facebook or spend the time dealing with email overload.
Currently, losing internet access can be a frustrating experience. But we’re slowly but surely moving towards a world where you can stay connected everywhere.
So, once internet access has crept into every rural blackspot, once every plane has Wi-Fi and once underground trains pose no barrier to getting online (like in Tokyo), will we start to yearn for a place where we can be disconnected? Will the frustration of getting cut-off unexpectedly be replaced by the frustration of being always reachable?
Well, it’s maybe not that clear-cut. But we’re certainly going to have to learn more self-discipline and understand when unplugging ourselves is a good idea: whether it’s to focus on getting a task done or simply to find time and space to think.