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Information Obesity in 1950 and 2012

posted 09-26-2012 at 13:47

Last week, Big Think posted an excerpt of an interview with Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, on information obesity (a term Johnson believes is more apt than information overload). I was reminded of it today when I was flipping through a book I'm about to lend to a friend of mine, Mental Health Through Will-Training originally published in 1950, written by neuropsychiatrist Abraham Low (1891-1954). There's a passage he wrote in 1950 that is probably more relevant today that it ever could have possibily been 62 years ago (reproduced from page 195 below).

... our age is hopelessly addicted to the worship of sheer information. Present-day men and women receive the bulk of their education through the channels of information, especially after they have reached adolescence or adulthood and are eligible for what is called "adult education." Then they are given the doubtful benefit of lectures and forums, book reviews, popular expositions on science and psychology, advice in child rearing and family management, instruction on how to make friends and influence people. The implication is that correct information is the surest way to correct action and that all a person needs for improving habits is to be told how to do it. Training, practice and leadership have been radically, and perhaps joyfully, discarded in this weird scheme of life in which grownup persons are expected to repose childlike faith in the magical power of theoretical knowledge. ... The notion that by some trick information can change action and direct impulses has gripped the imagination of the age. ... In [Low's] old-fashioned scheme, information is merely the preliminary to training and practice, not a substitute for leadership.

I'm sure there are some people who, when presented with new information regarding habitual behavior for them, are able to change quickly if deemed important enough. What Low is saying here, however, is an idea is more likely to be transformative if it can be combined with training, leadership and (though not explicitly stated) fellowship. In the same way that reading too much information that affirms our world view is unhealthy, lethean consumption of information that could be transformative if it was later practiced is tragic.

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