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Psychology of Technology: Less Input, More “Innerput”

The Web, the Internet, and all of the new media that has sprung from them , have been a boon to the information age, making information available at our fingertips instantaneously. The sheer volume of information now accessible on line is staggering. As of a few weeks ago, there were more than 21 billion pages on the Web. Information continues to become more available to more people in less time; from web sites to email to RSS feeds to Twitter, we have input at an unprecedented rate and volume. Ironically, as the frequency of information grows, the length of messages shrinks (e.g., Twitter’s 140-character limit. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; think of haiku). And, amazingly, the vast majority of this information is free.

For all its benefits, an unfortunate consequence of this torrent of information is that our “mental inbox” becomes overloaded. With our minds spilling over with information, our primary motivation is to empty it as quickly as possible. We typically use two “information survival” strategies when the inbox fills up. We output as quickly as possible without sufficient thought to either the incoming or outgoing messages. The obvious downside to this approach is that your input lacks thorough consideration and evaluation and your output lacks quality. Or, we are so overwhelmed by emails and text messages that we simply delete large swathes of messages without even looking at them. The obvious downside here is that important messages may be missed.

Information overload isn’t the only problem with this deluge of data that comes to those of us who are connected 24/7. Such large and never-ending quantities of input interfere with our ability to “innerput,” a word I created to denote our thought processes in response to input, including insights, synthesis, judgments, and decisions. With so much information coming in and the need to get information out, innerput suffers; there is neither the time nor the energy to adequately process all of the information.

Information is only a tool; it’s value lies in how we use it. And information has limited value, either as input or output, without innerput. Only through innerput does information become meaningful, only then can it morph from simple data to knowledge and wisdom. And that only comes when there is time for innerput; stopping in the middle of this flood of information to think about, wrestle with, challenge, and build on the information that arrives at our technological doorstep.

Dangers of input and output without innerput can be seen daily. Unfounded rumors that aren’t investigated adequately before they are posted spread across the Internet and are accepted and remain as “truth” even when they are definitively debunked later. Information without context limits its value to readers by restricting our understanding and its meaning to us. One-sided stories without the balance of another perspective create the illusion of accuracy and correctness. And all of this input doesn’t just describe phenomena that are happening in the world, it also impacts those very events because we make judgments about and decide on how we will respond based on these limited data.

For individuals, input without innerput has serious consequences. It means staying on the surface of information rather than diving deep into its meaning and implications. The absence of innerput prevents us from taking real ownership of the information and integrating it into our knowledge base. It also keeps us from transforming the input from cold and lifeless data into a power plant of insight, creativity, innovation, and action.

At a societal level, the consequences of too much input and not enough innerput are significant and sometimes dire. Input without innerput is often used as a weapon by extremists of every ilk against the forces of reason, moderation, and civil discourse. We see it in totalitarian regimes, fundamentalist causes, and ideological warfare. Drowning people in biased information is a common strategy used to prevent people from thinking deliberately and critically about the input to which they are exposed. In a torrent of information, the best way to survive is simply to accept it rather than resist it. The deadly combination of a tidal wave of input and the absence of innerput makes people more vulnerable to misinformation and undue influence.

So how can we swim against the tide of information overload and find the time for innerput? The answer to this question is really quite simple, but nonetheless far from easy. The power to control the amount of input we allow in, foster innerput, and ensure the quality of the output we produce is in our individual hands. Too often, I see people becoming slaves to technology rather than being its master; I see people being information junkies who just crave the input regardless of its value.

You control the flow of information in several ways. First, ask yourself what purpose all of this input serves and whether the typical information you receive each day really brings something of value to the table. You’ll likely realize that you’re inputting a great deal of information simply out of habit or perhaps a concern that you will miss out on something really important if you limit your input. Ask yourself: Do you really need to follow people on Twitter or Facebook or check your IMs every two minutes? Hopefully, this exercise will put your input load into perspective and show you that much of your input is unnecessary.

Next, choose the input you deem most important and jettison that which doesn’t clear that self-determined threshold. When you commit to input filtering and limits, you will establish new and healthier input habits.

With your input load reduced and your new understanding of the importance of innerput (you already knew it intuitively; I just needed to bring it into your consciousness), you now have the time to devote innerput to the input that you really value. The result? Less feeling of drowning in information, less stress, more time, more cogent thinking, and better quality output.

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