Surviving the Digital Maelstrom

Larry Lancit —

I received an email this morning from my friend Karl, who had a question. He said, “Well, I’ve gotten this far, what do I do now?”

The back-story is that I am a video producer and our company had just finished a video for a large healthcare provider in Southwest Florida. It was a video designed to encourage persons of civic responsibility and great wealth to contribute to a new medical center for the great mass of working-class citizens in our community here in SW Florida. Karl is one of the prime philanthropists in this effort, leading a foundation of wealthy citizens that contribute generously to this population.

Karl is in his 80s.

So, we had completed the video and Karl had asked for a copy of it to screen. During the production he had “shadowed” our production crew to all the locations and sat quietly in the background listening to all the interviews because he wanted to prepare himself for his turn in front of the camera. When his moment arrived, he was delightfully at ease and made his pitch to encourage his contemporaries to join with him in supporting the new medical center. His only request to me was that he get a copy of the video so he could show it at will to prospective philanthropists. I, of course, promised to oblige.

As most of us find out pretty quickly, it is impossible to send a file of more than a few megabytes through the email, so, in our company, we depend on a service called to shuttle things like videos through the “cloud” to whatever destination we want. We upload the file to the TransferBigFiles server and then TBF sends the recipient an email with a link for him or her to download the file to their desktop. Pretty straightforward, or at least I thought so.

Then Karl’s email requesting help arrived, complete with a screen shot he had taken of the destination page the link had taken him to. In the upper-right corner was a big green button which said “Download All.”

lancit screen shot final

I tried to understand how someone as smart, engaged, and active as Karl could miss this simple instruction and not understand what to do next.

What struck me was that this is pretty much a universal problem, especially with older adults trying to manage the increasing flood of information arriving on new technology that assaults them every day in the form of various media streams. The internet, social media, our phones, TVs, radios, newspapers, magazines—all of it can be overwhelming in people’s lives. In fact, it is all I can do to keep up with the torrent of information that arrives every day just in my email! If I am browsing on the web, I am being bombarded by ads for even the most trivial items I might have stumbled across and expressed a fleeting interest in during my travels with my browser. It seemingly never ends!

Karl, no doubt, grew up in the 1930s and 40s when radio was the rage and TV was still a novelty. The magnitude of change with regard to the amount of information he has to deal with today, compared with what it was when he was a boy, is astounding. That has probably been the case with humans for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, except that the rate of change is exponentially higher in today’s environment.

So is there a way to explain Karl’s inability to decode the simple process?

Does the human brain have some sort of self-limiting “governor” that makes our brains resist new information modalities when the beginnings of our understanding of complex patterns and information input are locked in at a certain point in time? Will children born into today’s world experience the same inability to process new technologies and information flow when they reach a certain point that is a unique conceptual distance from where they originally started learning?

There is a large subset of people older than 60 who simply cannot process today’s methods of communication. Maybe that is because as we age our quest for larger boundaries diminishes and we become less interested in looking outward and more consumed with peering inward. It is a well-known phenomena that a large percentage of aging adults are happier with smaller, rather than larger expanding universes.

Perhaps the ebbing of energy that is a natural progression of aging, automatically sets limits on our desire to know everything about something. Could it be that as we grow older we are satisfied with knowing less because we have known more than we really ever wanted to know as younger people, and now don’t have the need to pursue the outer bounds of what there is to know?

Today’s world is enormously complicated compared to even 50 years ago. James Morris, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, thinks that many of us suffer from “infobesity.” Just like “binge eating” can result in obesity; information overload results in infobesity, which can hamper productivity. Some people are compelled to ingest as much information as they possibly can and are prone to suffer from what Dan Herman, an authority on consumer behavior and CEO of strategy consulting firm Competitive Advantages calls “Fear of Missing Out” or FOMO. Studies have shown that our brains become overwhelmed when we try to do too many things at the same time. Information overload affects our perception of self-control and increases our stress level.

So Karl’s question to me is actually no surprise, it is rather a cry for help in decoding what must be a terribly confusing universe of new technology that ‘younger people’ take for granted.

Have you ever watched a 5 year old with an IPAD; or a 7 year old with complicated videogames? They are creatures from another dimension—a dimension of virtual space that only they are comfortable in. I am 70 years old and when I sit in meetings with millennial colleagues analyzing our use of the new social media technologies, it is all I can do to absorb the information that they ingest and absorb like gulping down a glass of water when really thirsty! I feel like I am trying to drink through a straw that is impossibly narrow for the task! What is the solution or the answer for this assault of information and hailstorm of new technology, which can be so blinding that it results in an inability to think clearly and act?

In Karl’s case, by imagining how frustrated he was in not understanding the structure of the rapidly evolving digital landscape, I was able to break down the task of getting the video to his desktop and show him how to open the file. By segmenting the process into manageable bites that he would understand, I was able to help him succeed in getting to his goal.

For the rest of us who don’t have a “helper” within easy reach, there are some things we can do ourselves to make information overload more tolerable.

Try to prioritize your information uptake. Consciously decide what you don’t really need to know and winnow down the FOMO instinct to reduce the amount of data you try to take in daily.

Show some personal discipline in the decisions you make to “follow” and “subscribe” to others (sort of goes hand in hand with prioritization).

Reduce the amount of media stimuli you subject yourself to on a daily basis. Do you really need to be on the computer while you are watching TV and texting with someone on the phone simultaneously? The brain is not capable of doing that kind of multitasking on a constant basis without reducing your overall productivity.

Focus on a single task and manage it in a reasonable time frame. Being compulsive about something has its own downsides, so know when to let up and move to another activity or task. Reduce the opportunity for interruption and distraction.

Surely this is not the complete answer to what is going on in today’s digital hurricane, but at least it will mitigate some of the distress and stress we all have in navigating our evolving and increasingly complicated lifestyles. The flood of information is growing in a logarithmic curve, so it is only going to get more complicated as time goes on. Let’s hope our brains can evolve to manage the increasing tide.

4 thoughts on “Surviving the Digital Maelstrom

  1. I can relate to this article. For several years I worked in computing administration at a university. At the time, I felt I was aware of most popular software on pc’s, tablets, and phones. As that time recedes into the past, however, I find myself increasingly clueless about new technologies that others are excited about.


  2. Thought-provoking article, particularly pertinent nowadays.

    Each of us is a human filter, ever screening information & external experiences for relevance & value. Through such processing we distill, over time, our identity and character. Information overload — much of it lacking important substance — from the popular portions of the internet (& facebook) can be of little practical usefulness for older folks. Younger generations do not yet have well-developed frameworks to adroitly discern what may or may not have value for themselves; they’re still out roaming the frontier.

    Communicating through 40 or 120 characters or in thinly developed content doesn’t rise to worthwhileness among many people who value the depth that, say, books especially contain. A case could be made that in many ways thought processes, language skills, & capacity to express oneself coherently have declined in this age of twitter, texting, & facebook posts. Some of us old codgers choose not to spend time or effort learning technology we have determined we personally really don’t need for the quality of life we have chosen & are content with.

    My comments are not a put down of the “Information Age.” They are simply a repetition of what has been observed for ages: any technology can & will be both applied wisely as well as misused/abused. Bottom line: useful & fulfilling (& their opposites) are in the heart of the beholder.


  3. Gee and darn, in the time it took me to read Larry’s article, I could’ve checked my email for the tenth time today. lol or smiley face or something

    Liked by 1 person

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