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Ethan Hampton


Too Much To Stomach

I recently started to watch “The West Wing” and have starting thinking a lot more about the impact that leaders in society can play on the world. Inconsequential decisions at the time can lead to either great success or great failure further along down the road. The following is a “position paper” of sorts that describes a struggle I think many people have.

One of the hardest things programmers have to do is keep all the information they gather looking at code in their head at one time. Where was that function called? What was that variable set by? How does that code result in that output? Over and over again they gain knowledge to keep for a few minutes then loose it and replace it with something else. Often programmers get into a state of flow where they don’t notice time go by and are only focusing on the code they are working on and nothing else.

That state of flow has happened to me a few time and it is very invigorating when it happens because you end up getting a lot done in less time. It doesn’t take much to get out of it though, it could be a garbage truck going by, a co-worker unintentionally sneaking up behind you to talk making you jump out of your chair or other distractions. Then it takes more than 15-20 minutes to get back into that state of flow again because you have to relearn what you were holding in your memory during that time.

The same sort of thing happens outside of programming. Every single day people are inundated with news, social media, homework, work, social problems and financial crises. It doesn’t stop and it never will. The issues that made us angry a month or two ago still exist yet we haven’t thought about them in weeks. For example, in May of 2019, Botswana lifted its five-year prohibition on elephant hunting (source). Also, the European Parliament elections take place May 23rd-26th which had a 51% voter turn out, the highest since 1979 (I couldn’t be bothered to source it). Those were just a few of the big events that happened that month, yet I had to look at Wikipedia to remember that these things had happened.

The human brain is not designed to hold all these events in our memory for a long duration of time, nor is it designed to think about them a week, a month or even a year after the fact. When my first dog died, that was a huge deal to me that had a huge affect weeks after it had happened, yet I would need to go back and look at a calendar or ask someone what day or even year it had happened. This isn’t a flaw or something that needs to be fixed but rather a natural limitation of the human brain and body that should be respected. In the same way, I know most people have poor name recollection, so I am not offended or even bothered if someone asks for my name over and over again, we all forget things.

Every day I go to news.google.com and look at the headlines. There is a ton of stuff I don’t care about, care deeply about or remain neutral yet more than 90% of it I don’t know anything about. We are constantly being shown information that isn’t relevant to us, doesn’t matter to us but still is something we should know about or even take extreme action on.

This free flowing, limitless, over-knowledgeable, highway of information is simply too much. Close to 7.8 billion people in the world, over 4.5 billion have access the Internet. The amount of content uploaded to YouTube is mind-blowing, as of 2015 over 500 hours of content each minute, meaning every hour, 3+ years of content. There is absolutely no way for a single person to consume all that content, even if 1% of the videos were good quality and 1% of those videos were about topics that interest you, it would be over 3 hours of content each hour. Basically my point is that even if you wanted, you can’t keep up with the flow of information.

To deal with this, humans have started to employ artificial intelligence to figure out what stories have the most impact to them and filter out all the ones that don’t. Google News does this, yet I still get stories that don’t mean anything to me or matter. The scary thing though isn’t the stories that I am seeing, but rather the ones I don’t. Do I trust Google’s AI to deliver content that I want, while also showing me stories that matter but don’t match my views? I have to. There isn’t a good alternative. Do I want to? Absolutely not.

Although it may be scary, we need to stop consuming content. People are much more educated today than ever before but I don’t think that is because we are consuming more content, I think it is because the content is of higher quality and we know more about the subject areas. If one can consume small amounts quality content, in a way free of most bias, then I believe that person will be successful in changing the world.

I don’t have an answer in regards to determining good or bad content, quality or quantity content but what I can say is this: We need to filter content not on our beliefs or views, but rather on quality. We are past the brainstorming phase of the world where we are free to just blab on and on about a product or idea, we need to move on to development and testing where those ideas are actively explored, produced, rejected or put in to action. At this point, a majority of the content produced in the world (including this article) is just clutter, stopping us from getting real work done.

Ethan Hampton is a Oregon State Honors College student studying Computer Science. Ethan loves simple but effective ideas that work at a large scale to help make the world a better place

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