How the rise of information overload gave rise to FOMO and the need for mindful consumption.
What does Tim Urban and William Zinsser have in common?
They both can take a piece of extremely convoluted topic and produce something that is a joy to read by processing it through an inbuilt computer — their brain. Interestingly, the 198 page spanning document I was reading about recently was on Neuralink and Brain-Machine Interfaces, written by Tim.
In one of the chapters, Tim kidnaps a fictional character named Bok who is supposedly our ancestor from 50,000 years ago, and brings him to 21st century. Bok is whizzed past all the inventions we’ve had since his time: airplanes, submarines, telescopes, TV, iPhone. Finally, after Bok is thoroughly flabbergasted, Tim shows him how we converse with each other today.
That image of a disappointed Bok made me think about an even more disappointing topic: we have taken great strides in dissipating information out to the world but are still walking baby steps in the way we consume and retain information.
This is a three part series, and the first of its kind. In Part I, I will talk about the history of information overload and need for mindful consumption. In Part II, I will talk about the history of information consumption and need for an organized mind. Finally, tying this all together, in Part III, I will walk through the need for and tools I use to build a second brain.
Memory overload. I repeat, memory overload.
Since the day we began drawing on cave walls about 40,000 years ago, we found a way to expand our mind and document our thoughts for the future generations to marvel at.
Truly a marvel eh
As the human colossus kept growing, we found newer ways to share the knowledge we learnt from various corners of the world. As spoken language grew in maturity, we invented hieroglyphics about 5000 years ago to talk through pictures (I call it pictionary for ancient times). Eventually, we developed the alphabet which became widely used at first by the Phoenicians about 3000 years ago.
Wait, who are these Phoenicians?
Well, they are the ancient Semitics who used to occupy the now country of Lebanon until they were sacked by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Which brings me to one of the greatest inventions of knowledge dissemination: Library of Alexandria. Although the origins are unclear, the idea of it began when a wise man convinced Ptolemy I to build a library that would house a copy of a book on every subject known to humankind. Ptolemy II carried forward this idea more obsessively by housing about a hundred scholars in the museum who spent all their time conducting research, writing, publishing, and making copies from other languages. But the nail on the coffin was hit by Ptolemy III.
One story goes that the hunger of Ptolemy III for knowledge was so great that he decreed that all ships docking at the port should surrender their manuscripts to the authorities. Copies were then made by official scribes and delivered to the original owners, the originals being filed away in the Library. — Ancient
An oft quoted figure specifies that the library was the home to about 500,000 scrolls at the peak of its glory. Which is why its inglorious destruction is still a heated debate among the historians. But despite the loss of a voluminous amount of literature, we moved on.
We moved on to continue gathering knowledge, writing encyclopedias, and building dedicated writing rooms. But it was always confined to benefit a small population until the Gutenberg’s printing press ballooned mass print-media production in the 1450s. Note however, that the printing press wasn’t invented by Gutenberg. The concept of using movable type existed for almost 400 years before Gutenberg got his hand on it after getting exiled from Germany. Good for him.
The subsequent pivotal inventions all happened in the 20th century at a largely expedited rate as seen on the left.
But nothing has been as substantial or as scary a change as the rise of social media. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (yes, I’m counting it) — among others — gave a loud speaker to everyone to trumpet their ideas, thoughts, and opinions to the entire world. By doing so, it also made us all anxious to know the response to our ideas, thoughts, and opinions in this one-way conversation.
And now, we live in an age where the collective knowledge around the world doubles every 12 hours — a feat that took 400 years just over a century ago.
Photo Courtesy of Anne-Laure
What a time to be alive.
The only thing to fear is not fear
It’s the fear of missing out, a.k.a, FOMO.
The first chronic outbreak of FOMO occurred in 2004, at Harvard Business School.
FOMO can be of anything: not attending an event, not checking your Facebook feed to see what your high-school-friend-who-you-haven’t-spoken-to-in-eight-years is upto, not reading today’s newspaper. A 2013 paper described it as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” I call it the fear of having only one universe (FOHOOU.. never mind). Because if we had multiple universes, we could jump between them to see if we would have been happier going out for that event which never interested us versus staying at home to read a good book.
This term goes all the way back to 2000 when a marketing strategist named Dan Herman introduced it to answer a very particular question: why do consumers prefer brand-variety over brand-loyalty? But today, it’s thrown around for… well, almost everything.
Some twitter users are even using it as a verb.
Although Dan introduced it, it’s said that the first chronic outbreak of FOMO occurred in 2004, at Harvard Business School. Ironically enough, the person who wrote about the fear of missing out — Patrick McGinnis — missed out on the significance of his idea until a decade later when he got called for a Boston Magazine interview. Back in 2004, in the strange times of post 9/11 and the dot com crisis, Patrick wrote an op-ed and used the acronym as a lament for the fear of missing out on things as he and his friends tried to do everything to savor their very limited life.
Today, the premise hasn’t changed much. But the number of victims have increased exponentially to the over 3.5 billion people who own a smartphone. We all walk with a FOMO-inducing device. Although more skewed towards a younger generation, the FOMO epidemic has effect on everyone to some level.
Studies estimate that around 70 percent of all adults in developed countries suffer from the creepy, sometimes all-consuming feeling that something’s happening and they’re not a part of it. — Boston Magazine
To say social media played a part in this would be a grave understatement. Multiple studies have shown positive correlation between FOMO and social media. FOMO is also associated with more depressive symptoms, less mindful attention, and more physical symptoms. However, this existed long before social media or even the printing press. Even in the thirteenth century, scholars were said to complain of the key ingredients of this phenomena which are still with us today: ‘the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory.’
But it has clearly accelerated in the past two decades. In the end, it’s all a vicious loop: our fear of missing out prompts our social media usage prompts our dopamine release prompts our fear of missing out.
It’s time to be joyful
By now you should know what JOMO stands for: Joy of Missing Out.
This term got coined in 2012 by an entrepreneur — Anil Dash — who wrote about it on his blog. I like how he introduced the concept. He writes, ‘There can be, and should be, a blissful, serene enjoyment in knowing, and celebrating, that there are folks out there having the time of their life at something that you might have loved to, but are simply skipping.’ Soon enough, a book got published by the same title by Chirstina Cook, urging people to be mindful users of technology.
You can think of JOMO as the emotionally intelligent counterpart to FOMO that grants you the peace you need by encouraging you to refrain from scrolling social media feeds, to be mindful of your time, and engage in activities that make you smile at night as you reflect upon your day. JOMO is no magical wand though: it’s a series of practices you need to adopt that will eventually free up your wasted time to be put to good use.
Personally, I do this a few ways, none of which I claim to be ideal. They worked out for me, so I hope you experiment until you find what works for you.
a) Out of sight, out of mind
I uninstalled Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger a year ago after I read Deep Work by Cal Newport, and haven’t looked back since. I download Instagram when I need to post something (if only the web version would give the same features!), but either uninstall it if I don’t need it again or keep it buried so it’s nowhere near my home screen.
I’ve also turned off notifications for most apps with a few exceptions: text messages, finances, emails from one account, and WhatsApp messages from my family. And lately, I’ve stopped taking my personal phone to work.
This is not to say I don’t use social media. I strongly believe in its power for good, and constantly share articles and thoughts. But, I’ve kept it largely out of my direct sight to use only on a need-base basis. If you plan on doing this exercise, allocate an hour one day to go through all the ways your attention is stolen and remove it one by one.
b) Practice saying no
I realized that by doing (a), I also began practicing to say no by not attending to messages until I get home or open a social media account. I also practiced to say no to any invitation to meet or go to an event during the week.
If you really boil down your day, there are only four to five hours you can productively use outside work (9 hrs), sleep (8 hrs), and leisure (2–2.5 hrs). If you want to make the most use of it to work on your side hustles, you have to say no to almost everything that doesn’t contribute to it.
c) Mindful consumption:
Finally, I began religiously unsubscribing to emails that landed in my inbox a few months ago. Almost on a daily basis, I would opt out of something. I kept doing this until I reached a stage where my inbox only had emails on finance, subscribed newsletters, or the occasional ones from Columbia. I also shut myself from the world of real-time news and read about things occasionally that piqued my interest.
I’ll tell you this: JOMO is a very unsettling process that lacks all joy in the beginning. It makes you feel anxious and even illiterate. But with time, you will get accustomed to it and wonder why on earth you put up with the juvenile FOMO for so long.
In Part II of this series, I will walk through the history of information consumption and the need for an organized mind. Be sure to subscribe below if you want to receive such work on neuroscience + productivity. No spam, I promise.