Informational Hygiene

A couple weeks ago, at RailsConf, I tweeted that I was skipping Joel Spolsky’s keynote and why.

Twitter / Amy Hoy: missing Joel Spolsky's talk...

Judging by the few responses I got, most people took this to be a joke. It’s not.

I try very hard to watch what I put into my head. To a greater or lesser degree of success. All kinds of research is out there that begins to explain what affect information has on our not-21st-century brains and there are many reasons to believe in a mental architecture that functions on the principle of shit-in/shit-out (SISO). (I say “shit” instead of “garbage,” because garbage often times has some redeeming value (depending on the type).)

And, secondly, research has shown that the majority of what Joel Spolsky writes is pretty embarrassing, and so is the software he produces. Based on what I know of the man, I didn’t have high hopes for his talk, and it sounds like I wasn’t far off the mark.

But it’s not just about some personal vendetta against Spolsky. Put simply, I already take in too much.

Case in point: I want to reference an author’s assertion about failure that I read recently.

It was probably in a book. That is, one of the five or so books I’ve read this past week.

Or, shit. Was it on a blog?

You can see my predicament. I know I read the thing. I remember what it said.[1] I said “Aha!” and “that’s interesting” and “I’m not entirely sure I agree,” and I probably dog-eared it or used one of my marker stickers which I keep everywhere, but that doesn’t mean much.

My “tagging” behavior has the side effect of leaving the best of the books I read looking like technicolor porcupines from Flatland. It will just as likely take me 20 minutes to find that quote, if I ever do.

I put too much information into my head. I devour it like it’s… I can’t even think of an adequate food metaphor because I just don’t like eating that much. My tummy is a wild beast that only accepts my yoke when I treat it with the gentle respect it deserves. Never in my wildest dreams could I spend an entire 8-hour day eating without wishing like hell I could stop, or at least barf.

With information, however, I start to read just one blog or just for 15 minutes and come to, hours later, with a stiff neck and cotton mouth, wondering dazedly where the time went. And what’s worse, I know full well this is what will usually happen, but I do it again anyway.

Fact: I’m never happier than when I strictly limit my intake of information, especially from pointless, shallow, or actively horrible sources. But, like all diets, I forget about actually feeling better, and sometimes I waste an entire day reading utterly useless shit. But tomorrow’s a new day, right? I’ll start fresh tomorrow. Or maybe right now.

In the mean time, I am more irritable, more distractable, more physically uncomfortable (info binging for me is a physically static thing) and thus more mentally sluggish, and, to top it all off, vastly less productive.

Which brings me to my point.


  • bingeing
  • purging
  • hoarding
  • hygiene
  • pollution
  • gentrification

Information doesn’t want to be free—that’s the pathetic fallacy in action. But it does seem to have a life of its own, reflected in the above words, because of our seeming obsession with it.


Further reading:

[1] The author was arguing against the idea that we learn from our failures and others’ successes, and saying it was a totally backwards idea—claiming that, in fact, we learn from our successes and others’ failures. I am, as I said, skeptical, but it was thought-provoking.


  1. Tony says:

    "Information doesn’t want to be free—that’s the pathetic fallacy in action. But it does seem to have a life of its own, reflected in the above words, because of our seeming obsession with it."

    Well said. Thought seems to be contagious. For most people, it seems to control them more than they control it… uniquely creative ideas or insights trying to bubble up from their subconscious are continually drowned out by a constant stream of dribble. The end result is a loss of true autonomy. Turn off the t.v. Break free. Actively shape your own reality.

  2. That "failure/success" thing was from "Management of the Absurd." Got it after you posted about it. Thanks for the linkage btw!

  3. bgsu_drew says:

    What on earth are you suggesting?

    To skip someone’s conference presentation because they have a bad reputation?

    And here – this VERY BLOG POST – you are contributing to the white noise you seem to despise so much. Who cares about you skipping a presentation??

    Not that this’ll be read… considering the information overload you’re suffering.

  4. It’s not part of the problem for those of us who hadn’t considered the topic before.

    I’ve only recently (and haltingly) gotten off Reddit and started pondering the problem. I just didn’t have a name for it.

  5. Jake says:

    Have you released any software that has made any money? Seriously?

  6. Neil says:

    Funny how I found this on news.yc. =P

  7. Marshall says:

    I find myself similarly overloaded with information. I prefer books to other mediums because a book is an investment. I don’t sit down with a book, check it’s inbox and get sucked through a trail of extremely interesting links from a friend. I read a book because there’s something I want to take from it. Because of that investment mentality I tend to actually absorb and use that information, this is generally not the case online.

    I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so I’ve mostly been reading e-books. 🙁

    I read a study that said we retain less when we read from a computer screen, it was on a blog or something. I think.

  8. Seb says:

    I heard a term on the radio that I think describes the nasty feeling you have after spending too much on the internet pretty well: "information sickness". The person on the radio was actually speaking about what happens when you spend too much time around people, but I think the effect is the same.

    This is something that we computer folks need to remember: it’s necessary to LEAVE THE COMPUTER – shutting it off…completely, and going outside. Not to the coffee house, not to the bookstore, but out to where there’s trees and water and stuff.

    Then you go home and upload all the pictures you took to Flickr. 😀

  9. @bgsu_drew Dude.

    We’re in a world where there is more information at our fingertips than we could possibly ever process, and it varies wildly in its quality, depth, and relevance.

    And we, not used to having access to the pseudo-omniscience at our fingertips, get sucked in. We spend hours and days at a time simply processing information- some of it useful, some of it noise- and can get lost in it.

    So we have to prioritize. And we have to exercise a measure of, as Amy said, informational hygiene.

    People’s personal experiences (like skipping a talk) may not be relevant to me, but this isn’t exactly a diary entry. The Spolsky example simply drew out this discussion, which is a good one to have.

    (Now, arguing in a comments thread– there’s a good waste of time!)

  10. Amy says:

    Thanks Tony B. 😉

    bgsu_drew, I assume you’re coming from Hacker News and thus won’t be back to see my response. Which rather supports one of my subpoints.

    But in any event, I didn’t skip his talk because of his reputation but because of what I know first-hand of his stuff. There’s a big difference.

    I also didn’t submit this article anywhere nor did I encourage you to read it. My point is that one must make his or her own informational choices. Which you did.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  11. Akira117 says:

    LOL! Blogging about information overload, I should blog about her bloging about information over load….

  12. Injerto says:

    You will surely find a cure.

  13. Andrey says:

    Very interesting links I can say!

  14. Sven Hecht says:

    Hi Amy, i’m curious what is it "what [you] know first-hand of his stuff"? I can’t find much criticism for spolsky out there.

  15. rr says:

    Shit has some redeeming value – it gets the waste out of us.

  16. Pete Forde says:

    I’ve been reading Joel’s blog since before it was referred to as a blog, and I’m a fan of the mind (and the guy is very nice) even if I disagree with him on many technical issues. He has a perspective that I find merits his place in my feed reader.

    What I found offensive about his keynote, and I am shocked that this hasn’t received more attention, is that I’ve seen that speech before, almost verbatim, at ETech.


    That’s right… he got a standing ovation the same year that Jason Fried presented (2006?) and so they had him back in 2007 to do it again, almost verbatim, as a keynote.

    It was awesome the first time, and it was a little weaker the second time, which I attributed to a bigger room. When he showed up at RailsConf and phoned in the exact same fucking keynote, I just about clawed my ears out.

    Seriously, what was he thinking? It was clever but it’s no "I have a dream" by several orders of magnitude.

  17. TJIC says:

    <i>What I found offensive about his keynote, and I am shocked that this hasn’t received more attention, is that I’ve seen that speech before, almost verbatim, at ETech.</i>

    Yeah, I’ve read some of Joel’s rants three times: at his website, in his book, and now Inc. magazine has made Joel’s regurgitations into a <i>columns</i>. WT* !?


  18. brother says:

    nice post 🙂 thanks!

  19. jeremy dillahay says:

    The book Snow crash by Neil Stevenson, talks about informational hygiene as it refers to religious texts, thought you should know about that.

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