Feed Burn

Wow, ok, so I am recovering from some sort of postmodern psychological ailment that I will tentatively call feed-burn.

It all started three or four weeks (maybe five, I can't really tell) ago when my colleague decided to introduce the lab to Google Reader, and conveniently emailed us all a link to his neuroscience "bundle". For those of you still unfamiliar with Google Reader and RSS feeds: it's a way to get new posts from all the blogs you read, all your web-comics, all your scholarly articles, and all your news, aggregated in one place, where they pile up like unread e-mails in your in-box. For those of you reading this post in a RSS reader, I apologize for the crude description, and I also wonder how you are still sane.

Furthermore, in Google Reader, one can create "Bundles" which are RSS feeds made up of several RSS feeds. You can also generate a filtered feed of "starred items", thus becoming an RSS feed classifier and essentially a component of a gigantic modular RSS classification AI.

So, this is great, right ? All my scholarly articles in one place, all my tech news, I should be able to stay on top of the Singularity now, no problem, right ?


Information arrives too fast. This isn't just random reality-television novelty, this is actual, useful information that is deeply relevant to my interests and goals in life. This is information that, if properly packaged, is behaviorally useful.

Thanks to the Internet, it is now possible for me to spend literally 100% of my time consuming novelty, rather than attempting to produce it. WeAlone recently blogged of the economics of novelty and attention in a post scarcity society. Well, it turns out that on the Internet, novelty is anything but scarce, and with an army of RSS feed zombies, attention also exists in surplus. The problem is not learning to escape boredom, the problem is learning to filter the vast surfeit of information to maximize your productivity and utility in society. Frankly, its enough for me to start supporting DRM and pay-for news services : if I have to assign economic value to information, I will start optimizing my information consumption. ( But of course this is a terrible idea because people who need knowledge and can't pay for it absolutely have a right to access it ).

click... skim... click... skim... click... skim...

If you allow a rat to electrically stimulate its own pleasure centers, it will do so until it dies from dehydration and exhaustion. Every day, first thing : wake up, read e-mail, catch up on google reader, then get out of bed. Every evening : fall asleep only after the queue is empty. At work : I can't stop hitting refresh, and my already poor attention and working memory is fast obliterated. I can hardly remember anything thats happened the past three weeks. I'm not sure I've made any progress at work, and pretty much every day is indistinguishable. Welcome to the 9 to 5 ? perhaps, but these symptoms are highly correlated with my newfound Google Reader addiction. So, after a bout of irrationality yesterday wherein I repeatedly forgot what I was doing and what I had just done, I decided that I needed to quit the Internet .. or at least Google Reader. This stuff is info-crack.

So, what's going on here ? Useful information is behaviorally rewarding. Google Reader works well at collecting and sorting useful information, generating a qeue of behaviorally rewarding stimuli that is filled faster than it can be consumed. Therefore, Google Reader is an unlimited supply of geek cocaine accessible by a simple press of a button .. over, and over. Sequential reader elements are uncorrelated, so there is no need to maintain a working memory across elements. The task can be accomplished simply by reacting to stimuli repeatedly, absolutely no focus or direction is required. Its like watching television or playing video games, only somehow it feels like its good for you, like its going to make you smarter, better, faster, stronger.

If I recall, the definition of "Singularity" is something like "technology is being created faster than man can understand that technology". As a species, we aren't there yet, but as individuals, this post-modern information overload has been happening for decades, and it is only going to get worse.

Hours wasted, days wasted, weeks wasted. My eyes are dry and I can't seem to do math properly anymore. It is time for this to stop, I've got to get back to work, just as soon as I check the 184 unread Reader elements that have piled up since I started typing this post.

edit : Reader has delivered to me an article much like this one, meta.. meta.. ok, I've got to step away from the computer now ... just as soon as I check e-mail.

edit : yeah yeah, another guy can't keep up with the pace of change. this might actually be temporally invariant. I need Biff to spin it into something meaningful.


  1. So, before I had Google Reader, I would use the same time much less efficiently by manually going to websites that occasionally have interesting things on them. The new method (of procrastination) is clearly superior.

    Also, although I spend probably a couple hours a day reading feeds, I don't really feel overloaded. That said, I currently have 337 unread elements, and at least half of them I will never actually read.

    On the other hand (before I edited it, this was the third "that said" in a row) I don't read about the same sorts of things you do.

  2. In part, the problem arises from trying to assimilate too much academic information too fast. Scholarly articles are exhausting for me to read, but even just sorting through what I do not want to read on websites where perhaps 60% of the content is interesting is time consuming. Also, two hours a day? I suppose that is comparable to what some people spend on television, but since my job involves staring at a computer, staring at a computer for another two hours is just painful.

  3. I have no idea whether this two-hours-a-day figure is actually true. Actually it probably isn't, except when I read blog posts in Spanish, which is a way of learning Spanish more than it is a way of processing the information in the posts.

  4. I was going to comment earlier, but I got distracted. Besides everything that's been said, what bothers me is that thanks to constant connectivity, my time has become a blend of work and play that is neither particularly fun or entertaining. My life has been smeared out out into an endless, stressful now. I should probably do something about this.

    --this botching posted from my iPhone.

  5. More old news: there are tools with which you can deter yourself from checking feeds outside certain times.