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Why Information is Like Tea

This entry is part of 3 in the series Information Overload

Information, in the relatively narrow modern sense, used to be expensive, so simply having it was more or less equivalent (or, at the very least, directly correlated to) wealth and power. At one time, merely possessing a marginally accurate map of some subset of the Earth’s surface, the kind of thing we now routinely stick in children’s atlases, was a huge deal, a state secret even.

But now, the real wealth and power is in packaging, filtering and combining information. So it’s more important to know how and what to discard than it is to collect. Curation, not collection, is the trick. Digestion, not dilation (what? I just wanted more alliteration, man, chill. You’d totally have done the same thing 😛 ).

Much is made of how organizations like the NSA more or less illegally collect personal information. The concern is valid, but tempered by the fact that, absent decent filters, the intelligence community is left no more intelligent or entertained than a guy who indiscriminately downloads ebooks and movies beyond his capacity to sort, read or watch them.

It’s like some sickly twisted Greek tragedy, where the victim is punished by being given what he wants. You want movies? Here’s most of the feature films ever made and released in your language. Scrolling and searching through Netflix feels like a chore. So you just go to the movie theatre instead, to watch the best of whatever five pieces of crap are running right now.

Data collection is like object collection (hoarding) — the promise and potential of action destroyed by the constipation that its own presence induces. Not unlike a rocketship that has tons of fuel so it can go far, but can’t go anywhere, because it’s too heavy to lift itself. (Having said that, when it comes to Japanese immersion materials, I do encourage you to err slightly on the side of hoarding. SRS cards, though? Delete those suckers with extreme prejudice).

What about tea?

Tea used to be so expensive outside of the Sinosphere (so, like, in the West) that sellers would cut it with cheaper junk substances to bulk it up — a lot like the illegal street drugs of today. Information (again, in the modern sense), used to be so hard to come by we just actively made stuff up to fill in the gaps, drawing imaginary animals on maps with a straight face.

Of course, we still make stuff up, all the time, but it’s somewhat more passive and subconscious now, and we collectively refer to these processes as cognitive biases. Do we know everything? Of course not. Do we even know more about everything? Unfortunately, no. But it would be terribly smug, pessimistic and liberal-artsy to deny that we (again, collectively) know more about a lot. My friend Stacy honestly thinks that progress is a superficial illusion and human life in every period of human history has been largely the same. Stacy is a deep thinker. Stacy is also wrong.

When you drink tea, you don’t worry that you’re not “getting the real tea” just because you’re not chomping down tea leaves (like all analogies, this information-as-tea business breaks down here a bit, because there are situations where you want primary source information über alles, although, having said that, prioritizing primary sources over n-ary ones is itself a form of filtering, so…yeah…still right lol).

Many forms of information aren’t just useless or gross or bitter or poorly textured (like them tea leaves), they’re actually bad for you (think: news, boring SRS cards, most social media). Avoiding such information will always be a net positive in your life; the little good it contains does not justify continued exposure to it.

You get the idea. I’m sure I’ve made many logical leaps and false historical claims in the preceding paragraphs — if I have, let me know 😉

Also, you can learn more about the awesome history of tea and five other world-changing drinks right here: [歴史を変えた6つの飲物 ビール、ワイン、蒸留酒、コーヒー、茶、コーラが語る もうひとつの世界史 | トム スタンデージ, 新井 崇嗣 |本 | 通販 | Amazon]

And here: [ A History of the World in 6 Glasses: Tom Standage: 洋書]

Standage is a super cool writer; easy, breezy and smart, his text reads like an episode of James Burke’s Connections, leaving you amazed, entertained, informed and enlightened all at the same time. Just so we’re clear, those are four very good things for a book to do to you 😉 .

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