The Downside of Living in a Need-to-Know World

I like keeping up with things, large and small, as much as the next person.

Or maybe I don’t. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

As someone who’s done a lot of journalism, I certainly have an appetite for being first with a story. In fact, most of the journalism I’ve written was stuff that no one else was writing about. But there’s a big difference between looking off the beaten path and trying to land a scoop within a beat that 100 other journalists are covering. I was never much into that. I understand that news organizations value the scoop but I do question how valuable such scoops really are — especially these days, when the first-mover often gets drowned out by the 1,000 who follow.


But lately I’ve been thinking about the information flow from the demand side rather than the supply side. It strikes me that so much of our current communication activity (whether internet- or phone-based, or whatever) is driven by an appetite to dispense and receive information as fast as humanly possible, regardless of how timely it may be. A co-worker texts to say the old boss you both hate has just been fired. Your buddy IM’s you about the latest non-development in the NBA lockout. Your mom calls with an urgent message: remember that old photo album we were all looking for? the one with the ski pictures? I just found it!

Personally, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of any of this breaking news. I don’t want my day, or my life, constantly besieged by what other people think are need-to-know-immediately events that, to me, are barely need-to-know at all. I don’t mean to sound like an unadulterated grouch (although, if the shoe fits …). I just find myself wondering, much as everything looks like a nail when you’re holding a hammer, if maybe every piece of information seems urgent when you’re holding a wonderful little computer in your hand that can broadcast to the world in a matter of moments.



It doesn't always seem urgent, it just gets there fast.


I remember when dispensing information on a "need-to-know" basis meant that it was restricted to a very few people.


I think this goes back to how you choose to use your tech. There are a lot of people out there lately that say "well, I don't want to be tied to a smartphone, so I'm not going to get one. "


That's a good thought. Do that. But you can also get one ... and only use it when you choose to. I guess I'm a little perplexed, because I got a smartphone (a computer, a tablet, a whatever) for my own use, and not for someone else's convenience. When I don't want to deal with calls or texts, I simply don't carry my phone.

I'm not trying to laud myself or be snooty about this; I'm simply wondering if it's time that we realize that we are no longer in an age where information is at a premium. Information - at least for most of us - is no longer a scarcity. So maybe we need to stop treating it with a scarcity mentality.

When you have more information than you know what to do with, proper filtering and prioritzing is more important than trying to avoid it, I think.



"But you can also get one … and only use it when you choose to."

Or you can not get one, and save quite a bit of money :-)


This pretty much perfectly summed up my attitude to smart phones:

(Yes, I'm the lobster on the left. Yes, even in the last frame.)

David Collins

While I agree that I do not always share your sense of urgency, or even your idea of what is breaking news ("My cat just threw up. LOL"), if I use the technology correctly I can let such "news" slide by me or even turn off such notifications. So, it is not always a problem looking for a solution.


I will say that, for me at least, the filters still aren't very good. I'm a geek, but I don't want to spend countless amounts of time trying to manually create filters to block out the noise. And inevitably I miss something that was actually important to me.

When people complain about this, they're really complaining about the filters. And we're going to have to keep improving them (or come up with a new way to think about filtering information) to get a handle on our new found information abundance.


> When people complain about this, they’re really complaining about the filters.

I disagree. I'm complaining about the people sending the messages. I wouldn't need to filter them if they hadn't been sent in the first place. The introduction of "announcement communication" by e.g. twitter, facebook, etc. has exacerbated this problem by allowing those things to be sent to everyone more easily than to just those few that might care.

Molly C.

The situations you reference all seem less like broadcasts, and more like personal memos. Even though you may not want the information being shared with you, it seems important to realize that the people who are sharing it have made a conscious effort to communicate with you. In my opinion, that effort is something to be valued, even if the information it comes with is not.


> In my opinion, that effort is something to be valued

If someone took the time to write "Just finished lunch" on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope and mailed it to you would you think that effort is something to be valued? Or would you think that the effort was absurd and wasteful? What if they did it 15 times a day?

Additionally, when it comes to facebook/twitter/etc it wasn't shared "with you" it was broadcast to everyone without regard for their interests or time.


Too much noise.


Several times in my life I've found myself in possession of an apparently urgent piece of news, and had to fight the urge to make a call or send an email. In hindsight, this has always been for the best. Sharing such news sooner would benefit no one, and be just a waste of time.


Amen. I just don't need to be the first to hear about Kim Kardashian's marriage breaking up. A. I don't care; and B. I'll hear about it soon enough and if the news takes 24 hrs to get to me, that's fine.


"...if the news takes 24 hrs to get to me, that’s fine."

But if it takes 24 years, that would be even better :-)


Not only is there total information overload, but without the ability to take a step back and look at and report on the grander picture, the quality of journalism has been torpedoed.


I read this article as soon as is came across my Twitter feed... SMH.


My new iPad frequently wakes from sleep with an alert sound and a display of (ahem) "breaking news" from USA Today. The news turns out not to be anything important. I've turned off these alerts. I've got 5 twitter accounts, but can't think of anything to post. Same for G+ and FB. I unfriended people I know because I got tired of photos of food. (Before everyone had a camera on hand 24/7, how did we survive without seeing photos of their lunch?) I follow 9 people on twitter, but only on Saturdays. I'm slowly getting my life back!

The overwhelming incoming information reminds me of what it's like to buy electronics at the large retailers here in Japan. The selection is overwhelming. Music is blaring. Salespeople are shouting. It's all COMIN' ATCHA'!

So I shop online whenever possible. But even then, the selection is.... well you know.

Enter your name...

I'm beginning to think that the less I know about current events, the happier I am.

I was mildly surprised by this attitude when one of my friends expressed it about ten years ago. She said that nearly everyone she knew was interested in some aspect of political life, and so she had figured out that if she stopped following the news at all, and something actually important happened, then one of her friends would let her know about it. In the meantime, using her friends as a sort of filter (a very intelligent filtering system), she freed up a lot of time and energy for her real life. She'd been trying it out and was really satisfied with the results.

So about a year ago, I started doing the same thing, at a somewhat lower level. I still spend ten or so rather sleepy minutes flipping through the paper each morning, and I read this blog most days, and about once a month I check out the headlines at one of the big newspapers, but that's about it. If I see something interesting in the headlines, I ask someone to tell me about it. They're usually happy to show off their knowledge.

It's been working pretty well for me. I experience none of their anxiety about the economic news and none of their anger about the political messes. I'm living my life, which turns out not to be a life that increases the ratings for TV news shows.



For most of human history, each of us had access to much less information than we needed, and certainly much less than we could process. So we chased as much information as we could, and wanted to find it as quickly as possible (i.e. before others, since information asymmetry can be quite powerful).

Now the situation is reversed – there are more *sources* of information (let alone more information) than we can humanly process, with each source capable of broadcasting in realtime and of rebroadcasting the information of other sources.

The best informed people, thus, have become not those who know the most, or those who know the first (in all but a very, very minor niche of cases), but those who can figure out what will be important (which is even more difficult than figuring out what you will find interesting). Thus, despite an explosion of information, it still requires a lot of effort to be the best informed. The only difference is that today the effort goes not into the collection of information, but into the classification, analysis and filtering thereof.