Information Overload and the FOOD IS THOUGHT Metaphor

by Venkat on May 26, 2008

If you’ve ever used phrases like, “that’s serious food for thought” or “I need to digest that” or “there’s no meat on that argument,” you’ve used the FOOD IS THOUGHT (FIT) conceptual metaphor. In this piece, I hope to convince you that there is no such thing as information overload — it is an imaginary problem that goes away once you learn to think about information with the FIT metaphor. It takes some time, practice and acceptance of a different approach to getting value out of information. Let me explain.


The Metaphor

A conceptual metaphor, for those too lazy to read my short introduction to the work of George Lakoff, is a systematic, partial mapping between two domains, A and B, that structures understanding of B in terms of the conceptual primitives of A. Conceptual metaphors, unlike the more familiar figurative ones, aren’t isolated linguistic embellishments — they are fundamental to thought in pre-linguistic ways. Several parts of A are mapped to parts of B in consistent ways, as in the examples above (more examples if you need them: “he is hungry for information,” “she has a thirst for knowledge,” “that’s a tasty morsel of gossip”)

Now, you can’t make up conceptual metaphors from scratch, since they emerge naturally from human thought, but you can elaborate those that already exist. I am going to start that way: by overloading the metaphor in its natural state in English. Here goes (warning, this is a beta construction):

  • Abstract, conceptual and theoretical what knowledge is protein
  • Narratives are fats
  • Concrete pieces of what knowledge, such as names and facts, are carbohydrates
  • Small pieces of information that are essential to functional social existence (such as knowing to dial 911 in an emergency) are the essential minerals and vitamins. I previously explored the idea of art as vitamin A.
  • Non-fiction books are (generally) high-protein food, your work inbox is largely carbohydrates, novels are fats — Dickens is good fat, trashy romances are bad fats.
  • How knowledge is the interplay of abstract what (protein) information with concrete what (carbohydrate) information in the context of application (apply the forearm muscle to lift that object, and burn up some glucose; apply the quadratic-root formula to this set of coefficients to produce the answer).
  • The potential value of knowledge is calorific content

Conceptual metaphors are always partial, and highlight some features of a domain while de-emphasizing others. If you use them thoughtlessly, you’ll extrapolate too far. FIT, for instance, doesn’t help understand thought processes very well. Beyond a coarse “digestion is information processing” mapping, you cannot easily map things like deductive vs. inductive reasoning. Bits, unlike calories, can be reused — indeed using a piece of information makes it more likely that we’ll remember it as well, except in specific highly-functional cases like waiter’s order memories.

The key to using FIT (or any other conceptual metaphor) is to stop using it the moment your mappings start becoming forced or convoluted, and begin getting in the way of clarity rather than enabling it. This is partly subjective of course — your ability to deal with complex metaphors may exceed your friend’s.

One apparent weakness, as I’ll show, isn’t one really. It may seem like in nutrition, carbohydrates are interchangeable no matter what sort of work you are doing, while information is rather specifically matched to its uses. You can use the same molecule of glucose to play tennis or take a walk, but you can’t interchange bits that way.

Well, you sort of can, but I’ll get to that after some practice lessons for you.

Some Example Applications of the Metaphor

  • Use it or lose it: The “use it or lose it” phenomenon is beautifully illuminated. If you gorge on protein (theory) without exercise (burning carbs by using existing protein), it gets eliminated without being stored. Lesson — application of theory is what breaks the theory down into its constituent categorical primitives and get it assimilated into your world view (integrated into your muscles as they recover). If you go long enough without applying some part of your theoretical knowledge, it starts to atrophy. I was once extremely good at solving trigonometric identities for instance. I am not anymore.
  • Read more primary sources: The same lines of reasoning that suggest we eat more raw salads and more home-cooked meals over restaurant or frozen meals, suggest that we should occasionally read original scientific papers (home-cooked meal) instead of pop-science (restaurant meal). That we should occasionally look away from the TV (frozen meal) to look out of the window (fresh salad) instead. The idea of a half-baked theory utilizes a similar mapping.
  • Eat Complex Carbs: Why do we instinctively (and correctly, unless you are in the celebrity news business) assume that consuming too much Hollywood gossip is bad, while consuming “serious” news is good? Think simple carbs in candy vs. complex carbs in whole-grain bread, and the similarity between glucose spikes versus slow digestion.
  • Avoid Intellectual Obesity: unused carbs get stored as fat. Hollywood gossip and quality news both end up as stored narrative memory (in one case, the entire Brangelina story, in the other, the history of WW II). Functional information, like a waiter remembering an order, actually gets “used” up the way glucose does — it is not stored.

The last two examples illustrate the care you must exercise in thinking with FIT, as well as the unusual insights that can result. Who is less healthy: the thoughtful entertainment industry critic who deconstructs the Brangelina story in the New York Times, or the amateur historian-pedant who regurgitates, with zero added value, boring historical tidbits about US presidents at parties? The only reason we think of Hollywood gossip as less healthy is that it is explicitly designed to titillate (candy) rather than inform (whole grains), making it more likely that it will end up contributing to mental ill-health. It takes a lot more care and processing to extract good nourishment out of candy. The metaphor helps us separate out the overall ‘too much fat’ issue from the ‘good fats/bad fats’ issue.

Using FIT to Reframe ‘Information Overload’

Now to the promised application to ‘information overload.’ The idea that there is such a thing as information overload is the result of a flawed bit of reasoning that goes like this:

  1. Information scarcity has given way to information abundance
  2. If there is more information than attention to consume it, there is attention scarcity
  3. Therefore, the same amount of attention must process more information

This is rather like saying, in the FOOD end of the metaphor

  1. We’ve gone from prehistoric hunter-gatherer life to Las Vegas all-you-can-eat buffets
  2. There is more food [in Vegas say, not worldwide] than there is appetite for consumption, so there is appetite scarcity
  3. Therefore, everybody must eat more

Clearly, information abundance and attention scarcity are real. Information overload is not. Just because there is too much food at a Vegas buffet doesn’t mean you have to overeat (though many do). You just have an easier time satisfying your calorific needs than through hunting or farming. As in Vegas, there will be a lot of waste — food that’s sampled and not finished, food that’s never touched and thrown away.

You might think that information abundance and attention scarcity are just different ways of describing information overload.

No.

Information abundance is a problem for producers. People like me, in short, who have to discipline ourselves. Cooking one new and exciting dish in limited quantities for the potluck is better than making a second pot of mashed potatoes when somebody is already making a first pot.

Attention scarcity also is a problem for producers rather than consumers. I, as a blogger, must try to get your attention. But you, as reader, can choose to tune me out completely and go elsewhere.

The biggest insight from the metaphor is this: you don’t even have to sample if you don’t want to, so long as there are a few dishes you like that make up a balanced meal. Indians might like to eat Mexican food, and Mexicans may like to eat Indian food, but each can survive without the other. And actually did for several millenia before the cultures had any contact. Let me translate that back to the information domain.

Curing Information Anxiety

If you are still not convinced, it is probably because you believe the following: that as the flood of information coming at you increases, your processing workload inevitably increases. After all, you have to, at the very least, glance at a news headline or email subject line for a tenth of a second to decide whether or not you want to process (or eat) it. Surely, even with the most efficient recommendations from StumbleUpon and all sorts of filtration tools, those tenths of seconds still must add up?

No.

The key to understanding why is to think of information throughput rather than information input. You only need to ensure that enough high-quality information (nutrition) is coming at you so you can add enough value (digestion, information work) to make a living off the throughput-process, and hopefully enjoy it (tasty work). So yes, it has to be balanced and sufficiently varied (protein, carbs, fats — theory, facts and history), to allow you to function and make a living, but you don’t have to experiment and sample unless you want to, or your traditional means of adding information value through your work is under threat. If you are an experienced welder in a great job, and you read nothing, you are probably still safe except from the unlikely event of really advanced robots taking away all high-skill welding jobs.

Remember, I said bits in a sense are as interchangeable as calories? Yes, but only if you are able to give up the idea that you need specific pieces of information. The value of information is only realized through information work, and your bandwidth for information-value-addition is far more sharply constrained than your ability to consume information.

Here’s how to make bits interchangeable: become an opportunist. So long as you have a rich enough stream of information coming at you, you don’t need to process it all — just as much as you can manage. Yes, some opportunities and threats will be missed, but you’ll find enough to keep you busy, and recover from the punches you don’t dodge. We dimly recognize this through our ideas of opportunity cost and risk management, but we typically don’t apply the implications to information processing.

Somehow, most of us still think of information processing in deterministic ways. It took me a very long time to get here. Ten years ago, I had “pet problems.” Questions I particularly liked to think about. If I missed relevant information about my pet subjects I’d get anxious. Today, I am much more opportunistic. I am able to get interested in any problem that I can usefully help resolve. I am able to give up pet problems, confident in the knowledge that others will come along in our information-abundant world.

Now that you’ve read to the end, ironically, this principle applies to even this article. Much as I like it (and liked writing it), not reading it wouldn’t have hurt you — chances are high that some other article on information management would have made it through your filters and provided as many healthy calories. But if you want more food for thought from me, try out another of my foodie metaphors.

thealphaswarmer| mAx May 28, 2008 at 6:25 am

Agree with this post alot – but incremental release of the RIGHT information for example is important in the balance. and with the RIGHT intention and contextual interpolations too!

Advanced science research into nutrition has showed that its all about TIMING too – at the RIGHT time and RIGHT doses!

Regards

– thealphaswarmer

gregory June 2, 2008 at 10:52 am

you’re the only guy i ever “met” who says it is no problem …

and you are right

if you pay attention to all of this stuff, clearly there is too much … if you pay attention to the self, and realize it gives you exactly what you need when you need it, there is no problem at all, it is just a flowing river on a beautiful day

it’s real simple. enjoy,

gregory

Marty December 31, 2008 at 10:15 am

I really like the article. I’ve been thinking around similar concepts in the nonprofit sector and all the associated campaigns and activities. People have even been feeling like there are too many nonprofits, too many groups, an “overload of good opportunities” and like the people fighting information overload “managers” want to thin the ranks rather than focusing sector wide and society “throughput”.

thanks again for the riff….

shufflejof March 9, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Luck was with us today. I arrived here serendipitously, as I am guessing many of your readers do. I read your piece through from beginning to end, even reading the comments. That was unusual for me — to read, at a comfortable pace, like I used to many years ago, before things morphed into “the other way of reading”.

Now I’ll have to go back and read it again so as to tighten up those loose connections that I didn’t quite grasp (but didn’t stick around the paragraph long enough to firm up the concepts).

Your piece even coaxed me to add a comment. :-)

Your use of food and all of its functions as a means of explanation is clever.

The astute commentary from thealphaswarmer has a very good point about Nutrient timing. Coupled with the “right” kind of exercise you can soar to places that you never thought you would ever be able to reach.

I’ve a few more minutes to spare before I have to do the chores. That gives me enough time to wander ’round your blog for a bit.

cheers…

John B June 24, 2012 at 1:38 am

I don’t believe you. I don’t think I’d be just as better off for having read a different article. It’s possible, but improbable.

The rest, I think is pretty good. : )

Cheers

foo October 4, 2012 at 5:00 am

I wonder what the humor metaphor is…

You crack me up
He’s a real cut up
He’s cracking jokes
You slay me
breaking the ice

Some sort of hammer or axe maybe

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