[6] Information Buddhism

One central idea of Buddhism, as far as I understand it, is that the nature of the (untrained) human mind is bound to create suffering in our life. We make our happiness dependent on certain fixed things or situations, but since the world is a dynamic process, things and situations are impermanent, and so the conditions for our happiness are destroyed over and over again. As a result, we are seeking for new sources of happiness all the time, never reaching a long-lasting mental state of satisfaction.
Recently Meryn Stol pointed to an interesting article that seems to provide a neuroscientific basis for that never ending seeking behavior: http://friendfeed.com/meryn/92799654/powerful-and-mysterious-brain-circuitry-that . It is clear that browsing the Web, hopping from one topic to another, is a perfect example for that tendency.
As Meryn points out, in our seeking mode we repeatedly overestimate the gain of getting what we are craving for:
I think the brain can very easily deceive you in assessing the relative “utility” of certain activities. When I’m engaged in an activity, I’m pretty much always convinced it’s very important, very valuable. When you look at it from a distance, it’s actually unfeasible to determine the actual marginal utility of spending time on one activity or another. I think given this fundamental uncertainty/ambiguity, we should at the minimum ensure that we have a good mix of activities, just like you would spread your investment risk by investing in multiple funds.
With respect to our desire for information gathering he therefore recommends:
I do think we have a big “seeking” bias, so if anything I’d always try to “steer back” from information gathering. What I mean by that is, you probably should read less, and do more, relative to your natural/current base point. The same applies for me !
Buddhists have developed (life-long) training methods to increasingly control our seeking and craving behavior. It might be worthwhile to reconsider those methods in the context of information hygiene.

[5] Archiving and personal libraries

I am regularly using a scientific news feed reader to inform myself about the latest publications in my particular fields of research. Being a hunter-gatherer type of person (post [3]), I will archive the (apparently) most relevant publications into my personal library.
But each time when I scan through the newly arrived papers, I feel uneasy: “When shall I ever read all these papers ? Is this routine of news browsing and archiving not a complete waste of time ? On the other hand, isn’t it important for a scientist to always stay informed about the “state of art” ? And, actually, many of these collected papers really seem to suggest that they might become relevant for some future projects. Wouldn’t it be a pity if I missed such a potentially essential piece of information ?”
Such worries made me continue the practice of archiving science papers up to now. But my intuition is that some radical resolution has to be made, if I ever want to achieve true peace of mind with this issue.
The problem is that the actual use of the papers in my personal library is close to zero. As experience shows, I will be reading only a minute fraction of them, anyway. And I am not alone with that disproportion: http://friendfeed.com/cmetzner/3de8d0b6/when-did-you-last-time-study-scientific-paper-in . Furthermore, from the papers studied carefully, only a small fraction will be actually used in my own projects later on. Consequently, I am now seriously considering to stop my habit of archiving. But I am not 100% decided yet.
Meryn Stol has made an interesting remark that the activity of searching for relevant information in the Web and archiving it can also be seen as a kind of exercise:
With regard to archiving, I think that nowadays there’s more value in the archiving than in the archive. Archiving (and especially in a non-hierarchical system, like with tags) helps build your brain and your ability to quickly access relevant information through search queries, even if you don’t execute these queries against your own archive, but simply search Google, or some scientific paper repository.
I think this points to two general principles:
We should focus more on doing than on having
and
We should adjust our habits in such a way that they best serve the larger goals in our life.
In the case of archiving and personal library building, the larger goal that these activities serve is to help us accomplish our own projects. Comparing, again, the growth of ideas with the growth of food plants (post [4]), the library is like a huge container of various nutrients. The growing plant (or interlocked set of ideas) needs certain nutrients at certain times. So we should take care that the nutrients (information fragments) are quickly available whenever needed, but also that the timing is correct. Therefore, for the knowledge worker, a regular training of his information search abilities is obviously useful, as Meryn has pointed out. On the other hand, confronting the mind with “foreign information” at the wrong time may deflect our “path in idea space”, typically towards the standard path that other people have chosen before. In my experience as a theoretical physicist, it usually turned out best if I didn’t study the available literature on a subject too much in the beginning of a project.

[4] Information farming

I would like to use the information-food analogy (post [2]) one more time, in order to illuminate the process of information production. After the hunter-gatherer period (post [3]), we humans have learned to actively produce our food using the techniques of agriculture. By doing so, a large part of the environmental conditions necessary for the growth of food plants is brought under the control of the farmer: A specific part of soil is chosen, a specific type of seeds are sowed at the right time, water is supplied in the proper amount. The growth of the plant is monitored and actively protected from any perturbations. Despite all this external control, the biological growth process of the plant remains autonomous. We only have to provide good external conditions for this fascinating process of self-organization, in which nutrients distributed randomly in the soil and air are automatically integrated into the complex biochemical machinery of the plant. Due to our partial control of the necessary conditions and parameters of growth, we gain many advantages. For instance, as farmers we don’t need any longer be content with what we find in nature, but can produce exactly the food we need for our well-being.

Many of these observations can be transferred to the realm of information. In this analogy, an “information farmer” might correspond to a “knowledge worker” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki… ), a person that uses information fragments from the environment, combines them with her present mind-structure (post [2]) to new combinations which represent the product of her work. Note that this mental growth process of new ideas is also a self-organization process that is not fully under control of the individual. As professional knowledge workers, we have learned how to optimize the conditions for idea production to some extent, but the inner working of our mind is out of control.

I want to make a final point here: Although farmers in modern times produce food in order to sell it, the original setting of early agriculture was that of home gardeners that produced mainly for their own (families’) use. And just as home gardeners are convinced that their own vegetables taste best, I find that it is also most satisfying to live in a world of self-grown ideas. As a theoretical physicist, I can enjoy my own garden of ideas and even get paid for it !

[3] Hunter-gatherer behavior

In the remote past, human beings lived from the food that nature provides. This food was sparsely distributed and thus it required intelligent search or hunting strategies to get it. As the success of a food-gathering excursion was not guaranteed, such people had to store any extra (surplus) food in reservoirs, such as their own body or a safe place at home. Many of us still show hunter-gatherer behavior, in particular when information food (compare [2]) is concerned. We surf the Web and bookmark and download whatever might become useful at a later time. We have not properly adapted to the new situation that (information) food is not rare any longer. It remains available in the Web forever, and, thanks to ever better search engines, it can be accessed quickly when the concrete need arises (And just as overeating can lead to a fat, less mobile body, an uncontrolled information in-take may on the long run result in an immobile mind – excuse my little joke).

[2] The information-food analogy

Our body is a complex structure of biochemical components. This body-structure is subject to permanent remodeling processes: Components are added to the structure, others removed, while (in the healthy individual) all those parameters and functions of the body that are essential for daily life are preserved or even improved (training). Due to that impermanent nature of the body-structure, the organism needs a constant in- and out-flow of bio-material. In analogy, our mind is also a complex structure of components (ideas, information fragments, patterns, mems, concepts, beliefs..) that are constantly remodeled. The mind-structure is changed whenever we learn or forget. As we must behave in an intelligent, adaptive way in everyday life, the mental functions have to be maintained, or better improved. New components for our mind-structure are available by absorbing information from the environment. We break down that information into small reusable items and incorporate them somehow into our mental machinery.

[1] Extending the notion of hygiene

According to Wikipedia, “Hygiene” refers to the set of practices associated with the preservation of health and healthy living. The word seems to be used almost exclusively in the context of our material body, but the basic idea can be extended to the field of our mental well-being. For instance, one can ask questions such as what kind of information we should absorb, what is the proper amount and timing for that in-take, and wether the concepts of fasting can be applied to our mind.

[0] A public brainstorming thread

I would like to reflect the problem of information overload in a series of short posts. Since this problem is yet too complex for me for analyzing it in a coherent essay, I’ll try adding small ideas, one at a time, just as they come to mind. Each idea will have a label for cross-referencing. Comments are welcome, of course. In the end, I hope to arrive at a set of basic insights and principles for a personalized information diet plan.