Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Info Hunter, and the Info Forager

These days, the term infovore is being commonly used around on the internet, mostly by RSS feed junkies and the people who purport to study them. I'll admit it; I am an infovore (as are we all), and a very ravenous one at that. I hoard links to interesting online articles. Friends who I have conversations with can attest to my frequent use of the phrase, "That reminds me of something I saw/read/heard on..."

Infovore is a provocative term, incorporating a metaphor that compares blog-reading with eating, thus elevating a seemingly leisurely activity into one that is central to survival. Not only that, the person who proclaims he is an infovore is, in a way, announcing his power. Our society fetishizes information ("Just give me the facts") and being in-the-know means that you have accumulated something of value. People have even argued that the need for information is so strong that it drove the evolution of human intelligence in our species' early days. As the argument goes, being able to learn new things, like how to make a better spear, gave an individual a better chance of survival. If being intelligent, curious and in-the-know makes for a more evolutionarily fit human, then these individuals pass on their genes to the next generation and the rest is Darwin.

We can now start to explain a bunch of human behaviors from an evolutionary perspective.

What if you are a human that is intelligent, curious and in-the-know (or maybe you're not but you want to fake it)? Then your first priority is to make sure all potential mates know about your sexy attributes. Write a song, invent a device, or wear really distinctive clothing and look down on the musical tastes of lesser humans. This is how your hipster friend gets laid. And this kind of sexual selection is more pronounced, in the modern setting, than the more basic need to survive. Scanning Facebook's news feed is not a life-or-death affair, but it does make you more socially savvy, which satisfies an instinct for survival and reproduction.

So the hunger for information is really comparable to the hunger for food, in the sense that both grow out of evolutionary roots. And when you're no longer at risk of starving, hunger for information becomes even more pronounced.

I want to now extend the analogy between info and food even further. Consider the hunter-gatherer. What happens when the climate is harsh and food is scarce? In these conditions, hunting is probably the more productive option, as all of the easily obtained food has either died or been eaten and concentrated in the bodies of animals like (in the Ice Age) mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers. What happens when the climate is mild and food is plentiful? Then gathering becomes more productive, since one can easily find wild berries and nuts, for example.

I think now, with the rise of the internet and consequent deluge of information, we are witnessing the end of an information Ice Age and the beginning of...something else. The information-food metaphor breaks down here, because wheareas a hunter-gatherer might witness a tenfold increase in the amount of food available in his environment, what we are witnessing in the digital age is instead an exponential explosion in the amount of information being created.

From TechCrunch:
Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until  2003, according to [Eric] Schmidt. That’s something like five exabytes of data, he says.
Let me repeat that: we create as much information in two days now as we did from the dawn of man through 2003.
If a ten-fold increase in the amount of food available means that the hunter-gatherer begins to rely less on hunting and more on gathering, then what does a gazillion-fold increase in the amount of info change about the infovore?

It changes how the infovore gets her information. Instead of spending hours scouring the library, and then immersing herself in a book, she is more probably going to be juggling a dozen open tabs in her internet browser. In the hunter mode, she spent a relatively large amount of energy but got an info-dense reward at the end of it. In the forager mode, she receives a steady stream of little info bits. And like any organism faced with a radically different environment, she must adapt. Her brain literally rewires itself to better take advantage of the abundance of information.

In an article from The Guardian about a study by Dr. Gary Small:

[...] 12 experienced web users and 12 digital newcomers used Google, while their brains were scanned. The results, published under the title Your Brain On Google, pointed up a key initial difference between the two groups: in an area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which deals with short-term memory and decision-making, the rookies showed hardly any activity, whereas the web veterans were really firing.
Six days later, the novices having been told to spend an hour a day online, the two groups' brains were scanned again – and this time, things got even more interesting: in images of both sets of brains, the pattern of blobs representing mental activity was virtually identical. As Small put it: "After just five days of practice, the exact same neural circuitry in the front part of the brain became active in the internet-naive subjects. Five hours on the internet, and the naive subjects had already rewired their brains."
One might say that they've entered a foraging state of mind. So we now know that there are changes in the brain that manifest themselves within days, but what about the changes over a lifetime? Should we care that people are forgetting how to really focus on a difficult book? It's not just about book-reading, it's also about contemplation and reflection, rumination and meditation, activities that share brain-space with the constantly frittering info-seeker.

I do not know what this massive shift in information consumption entails for broader society, but I can venture a suggestion for fellow infovores: become a discerning connoisseur with a refined info-palate. If you're worried about spending too much time browsing and not enough time doing deep reading, then limit how much time you spend looking for new things and spend more time reading what you've already found. If you have an RSS feed or use a news aggregation site like Reddit, change your subscriptions so that you have more high-quality items, but peruse less of them.

At one time, I seriously contemplated quitting the internet: never checking Facebook, only using email for important correspondance. But I can't quit the internet any more than I can quit eating. I can only choose how I use it. I want to use it not merely to passively consume, but to create beautiful things, to ennoble myself and society. There will come a time in the distant future when we'll be able to look back on ourselves with a more mature mindset regarding the creation and consumption of information, as a more evolved being might study its ancestors. About us, our descendants might say: "How little they had learned! How vast the realm of human potential they had yet to discover!"

Or perhaps they will be too busy keeping up with the new to expend too much energy thinking about the past.



Update (17 Apr 2012):

Here is some research showing that the way we recall memories can be predicted by a model derived from honeybee foraging patterns. I suspect there are many ways in which our higher cognitive functions are bastardized versions of heuristics for food acquisition. Food<->info might be more than a clever metaphor. It might even be a scientifically relevant model.


  1. Here's another example of the change that this explosion of information is creating. As this [] Economist blog post notes (which ties into your thesis), the internet is creating a new scare resource: attention.

    "Attention is a scarce resource. In several industries it is the scarce resource. The allocation of attention is therefore among the more interesting economic problems of our time."

    As the amount of information explodes, so does the opportunity cost of our attention. Every book I read means that I don't read another. And even if I have the time, I don't necessarily have the *attention* to read as much as I'd like. So, the author points, there is a market out there not just to suggest additional books to add to our reading list, but also to trim it down. Here's how it might work:

    "[A website providing this service] could offer recommendations like: If you read only five books on classical Chinese poetry, these should be the ones. If you read only three, these are the two to drop. If you've read this, you don't need to read that. If you were intending to buy this well known book, try this lesser known, but better, book instead."

    I've tended to think of the internet as a rather peripheral invention--something that keeps us more well-informed and/or entertained, but not really central to our standard of living or way of life. But that now seems totally false. The more I think about it, the more it seemst that the internet has ramifications not just for cognitive science, as you've noted, or this example here in economics, but for every other human-centered discipline.

  2. Interesting that you mention how the services industry might exploit this. I think also that our culture will place more and more value on having good taste, relative to being able to produce. As the "means of production" for information becomes cheaper and cheaper, the challenge for the consumer is to find the gems in a torrent of rocks. The challenge for the creator is to appease the critics who can give them publicity. And the challenge for the critics is to establish credibility.

    These roles all blur together though. If I write a blog reviewing an article that I enjoyed, then I am consumer, creator and critic. We will play these roles in varying degrees.