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Updated: March 2, 2014 17:52 IST
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A case of info anxiety

Usha Raman
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Illustration by Satheesh Vellinezhi
The Hindu Illustration by Satheesh Vellinezhi

It’s impossible to know every thing about everything. How are we going to keep pace with the deluge of data ?

“There’s just too much of everything to keep up with these days. More books, more music, more kinds of coffee, more cuisines, more trends…just more information!” My co-commuter and I were talking about what has come to be called “information anxiety”, a condition produced by the ever-increasing amounts of information we encounter. We feel like we just can’t keep up.

Each of us has a different response to this. Some of us bury our heads in the sand and ignore all the new information, preferring to stick with the things we absolutely have to know about.

Others scurry around trying desperately to keep up, raising their levels of anxiety to dangerous levels, getting depressed about not knowing as much as they think they should. And a few lucky ones develop a finely honed sense of selecting just those bits of information that are relevant to their field of work or study, and setting aside the rest.

These are the people who always seem to be well-informed and up-to-date, without becoming overwhelmed.

Reading to manage

As students, there is the reading we need to do to manage our courses. Much of this is information that has been accepted into the body of knowledge and institutionalised in the form of textbooks. It’s foundational, in the sense that it allows us to understand more complex information or see linkages with other areas to build a sense of the world (through the lens of our particular discipline). Obviously, we are never going to be able to read it all, but perhaps we need to have a sense of the contours of a field — in other words, a sense of knowing the scale of what we do not know. Most college curricula are planned to give students a basic understanding of how the field got to being where it is — the history and geography of a particular discipline, the people who made it and the main ideas that contributed to it.

Reading beyond the brief

Then there is the additional reading we are expected to do in order to put together a project or term paper, where we (hopefully) go beyond what is “assigned” and try to discover information on our own. But as we go through college, the volume of information in our chosen field continues to grow. What we are exposed to is a tiny fraction of everything that is out there.

We’ve already accepted that it is impossible to know everything about everything, so we can perhaps attempt to know as much as we can about something.

The key is deciding what that something is, and how we are to go about keeping up with it.

Once you have identified those areas that are crucial to your work (or, let’s say, important or beneficial), you need to think about a strategy that will allow you to stay informed.

Whether you are an engineer working in fluid mechanics, or a historian working with early 19th century texts, you need to stay in touch with new ideas and developments in the field — if you want to contribute to either knowledge or practice in some way.

Tracking information

Fortunately for us, we have the Internet. While it is also important, we don't need to rely exclusively on the latest information to come out in a journal that is locked away in a library we don’t have access to.

A lot of new information is available from public sources and shared documents. In most cases it is sufficient for us to just know what is reported in the popular press (newspapers and magazines) so that we can find the original scientific report if necessary. But even this can be a daunting amount.

This is where such things as alerts and hashtags come up. Many browsers allow you to set alerts, which means you will be alerted each time there is a new piece of information or the topic.

Both Twitter and Facebook catalogue information through hashtags, which allow you to search posts that are tagged using a particular key word.

In addition, select a few key magazines or aggregator web sites and follow these on a regular basis, scanning everything and spending time reading those pieces that relate to your interest.

Applications/services such as Flipboard and Twirl allow you to put together a personalised news feed that gives you a selection of articles relating to your specified field. You may begin with a broad selection of topics or magazines, but pay attention to what you end up reading, and, over time, restrict your feed to those topics or themes. Occasionally, it is also important to occasionally dip into the larger ocean of information and see if random acts of fishing bring you interesting tidbits.

Of course, collecting information is just one part of the story. You then need to read it. It is really not so hard, though, if it is done systematically and regularly.

Just set aside half an hour a day to keep up with the information you have selectively received. Over time, you’ll find that you’ve become quite good at figuring out what and how much to read to avoid that sense of anxiety.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus. www.teacherplus.org.

Email: usha.raman@gmail.com

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