Information Foraging

Following up on Rex’s last post, I’d like to ask readers a question about doing online research. One of my favorite radio shows, On the Media, recently interviewed John Lorinc, author of an article on online distractions. In the interview Lornic says the following:

I came across some studies that had identified these two terrifically descriptive terms, “informavores” and “information foraging,” when you’re working online. There is this craving for information. It’s difficult to know when to stop. And you can quickly come to the conclusion that you can go on link by link by link ad infinitum… You’re always waiting to get closest to some ideal of a perfect state of information? And, you know, in a pre-digital, pre-Internet environment, you could get to that place very quickly, whereas with the Internet I do think that the horizon is much further off, and yet you still crave that. And I do think that’s the addictive nature of it.

I imagine most of you wouldn’t be reading this if they weren’t informavores as well. I use a number of tools to try to keep my information foraging at bay (i.e. Too Many Tabs, Instapaper, Sente, and Evernote), but it isn’t enough. I often feel I spend more time foraging than I do sitting down and actually reading what I’ve found. Of course, some times I find something and I know this is the thing I need to read next – but that feeling comes few and far between. So I’m turning to our readers: how do you deal with information addiction?

UPDATE: I wanted to add a further thought, which is that the nature of our discipline might make matters worse. Perhaps I am wrong, but I can imagine being an expert in a particular subbranch of neurobiology and having a pretty clear idea of what literature I need to read in order to be a master of my field. The holistic nature of our discipline, however, means that there is seemingly no limit to what we must know. In my dissertation, for instance, I discovered that the literature on land policy was particularly useful for understanding the development of Aborigine education policy. If I hadn’t been an informavore I never would have made such a discovery. But the vast amount of really interesting and potentially useful stuff is simply overwhelming me these days…

12 thoughts on “Information Foraging

  1. Information addiction or procrastination? Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. In either case a lot of time gets spent with little to show for it. One thing that I am trying out is having one or two highly focused things to do. My current examples are taking notes on books by the Japanese advertising creators whose world I am studying and running analyses on specific subsets of the data I am using for the social network analysis. Even a half hour a day on each means that I can see steady productivity and a growing mass of facts that stimulate new questions.

    Where did this approach come from? I once read somewhere that Max Weber was so chronically clinically depressed that he could only write two hours a day—but look at all that stuff those two hours a day added up to. I read somewhere else that the No. 1 mark of a professional writer is that he or she sits down and writes at least x pages a day, come rain or come shine, feel like it or not.

  2. I wrote this post precisely because the techniques you mention (which I also employ) don’t address this particular issue.

  3. I have to say I am pretty skeptical of this idea. I think people who talk about not being overwhelmed by information prior to the Internet have just never been in a large library. People have been complaining about information overload since FRANCIS BACON and I’m sure there were people working in cuneiform that had a similar experience. The bottleneck is really in our individual ability to absorb information, not our species’s supposed previous inability to transmit it.

    Sure, barriers to finding information have been lowered, and we now bundle writing technology onto the same platform as content-discovery technology (you didn’t used to be able to read books with a pen and a piece of paper) but I these speak to changing research strategies — in particular, the need to periodically put yourself ‘on top’ of things to learn about them and then contract your focus to be ‘on the bottom’ and writing about one thing.

    The right thing to do is not fool yourself into thinking that you’re getting anything done by making all those databases – which is particular problem for gadget- and website2.0- obsessed people, Kerim (cough cough) 🙂

  4. It is possible, I suppose, that in the mid seventeenth century the number of books published on a topic had already exceeded what a scholar could expect to read in their lifetime, and that information networks had gotten sophisticated enough that they already were aware of new developments beyond what they had access too at the top libraries in their country. But as resistant as I myself am to technological determinism, the information explosion is something which is fairly well documented. Here is a graph showing the number of books per year in the Princeton rare books collection. (I decided to not waste time looking for a better graph, even though I’m fairly certain the internet contains better data on this subject.)

    What I think is more difficult for a “informavore” than anything else isn’t the volume of knowledge – but the awareness that it must be out there and that a proper Google search will yield the results. The thing about large libraries is that they just aren’t that efficient. You quickly get the feeling of diminishing returns on your search for more information. What is different now is that you get a large number of highly relevant results – and quickly discover related and highly productive veins of exploration. You are not limited to the card catalog, but have access to full text search inside the books, as well as of all the scholarly articles written about those books, and the bibliographies of those articles which list all the related books, syllabi of scholars teaching those books, and auto-discovery services like Amazon’s “people who bought this book also bought…”

    I think an equally important issue is the web 2.0 effect, by which via blogs, twitter, LibraryThing, etc. one is daily made aware of new books and articles “one should read.” In your recent post on your methodology syllabus, for instance. This list contained some very useful texts which are in no way irrelevant to my professional development.

  5. Fascinating discussion, this. I can agree both with Rex that the fundamental problem is bottleneck in individual’s ability to absorb information and with Kerim that the explosion of information that is readily accessible is real. It occurs to me that disciplinary boundaries, peer review, and other academic institutions are filters that once provided a plausible way to restrict input to what was not only knowable but specifically relevant as well. What the information explosion has done is to make them less and less effective. The knowable has expanded but relevance has become increasingly fragmented.

    This isn’t, I’d suggest, a simple function of anthropology’s holistic hubris. It is, instead, a predictable outcome of what Andrew Abbott calls _Chaos of Disciplines_ (a process that resembles in some respects the one Clifford Geertz described in _Agricultural Involution_). In all sorts of disciplines, specialization is driven by scholars’ need to distinguish themselves, the easiest way being that old human standby “Not like them!” What the _Chaos of Disciplines_ model adds is the notion that much, if not all, of this specialization involves the recursive use of familiar oppositions, e.g., quant/qual, explanatory/interpretive, that sort of thing.

    Be that as it may, a fruitful approach might be to reconsider the nature of the those old disciplinary filters. In an era in which a topic or problem driven Google search is likely to turn relevant information from all sorts of disciplines, the old academic boundary feuds make less and less sense. The question is how to replace them.

  6. John,

    I agree that the decline of disciplinary filters is a big part of the problem. At the same time, I read a study some where (can’t remember where) about how major innovations have often come from people who sat on the borders between disciplines. Anthropology has always drawn from other fields: linguistics, psychology, etc.

    So perhaps a better way of framing the problem is not in terms of technology, although the technology makes the problem more apparent, but in terms of how to balance developing core expertise with wide-ranging foraging. It is a balance I’ve never been very good at maintaining!

  7. bq. balance developing core expertise with wide-ranging foraging

    That sounds good as a starting point. But couldn’t we get a bit more specific?

    For example, for disciplinary reasons we assign readings and expect students to write papers citing work done by anthropologists. Suppose, instead, that, both in our own work and what we expect from our students, we insisted that all research begin with a topic-focused search using Google or some other search engine. A classic topic like “marriage” will yield a huge trove of material from all sorts of sources and immediately pose that challenge of how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Repeatedly working through this kind of problem may cultivate critical thinking and study habits more effectively than reading and regurgitating only what the instructor assigns. It will also challenge the instructor who is an anthropologist to think harder about the relevance of the anthropological sources with which he or she is familiar.

  8. From an undergrad’s point of view, this is exactly spot on. My biggest obstacle on any given paper or project is getting from the reading phase to the writing phase. I never feel like I know enough, and if I just keep reading maybe I’ll have a breakthrough and suddenly understand everything. And there are just so many ways of finding information, even just searching the library database I have found new and different things by tweaking my search methods the tiniest bit.
    Inevitably, the only thing I ever get out of doing all that research and reading is being convinced that everything I think has been said before and that I have no original ideas whatsoever. I guess that’s the struggle though, eh?

  9. Camille, that’s exactly the problem. The recipe for dissertation procrastination was & is: read more. To finish my dissertation, I had to stop reading.
    But how can the technology NOT be an increased distraction? I left my office early tonight to remove myself from the internet (I don’t have it @ home). I needed to remove myself from the possibility of instant answers, or at least the glistening hope of just the info I need, right in the next link-horizon. This process is exacerbated bythe fact that the search itself changes what I am searching for.
    And what am I doing? Getting caught up on tweets & savageminds. And I wouldn’t have tried the latter on my phone except that the clean, elegant new design makes sm quite readable on the small screen. Thanks a lot, Kerim 🙂

  10. This exchange suggests there might be something to be said for the continued virility of the dusty old trope of “disciplined” production – disciplined, that is, to the standard objectified in an imagined set of readings shared by the entire editorial board of the leading journal of your field, imagined as constitutive of a tractable “qualifying” limit to the set of readings necessary for you to express your own unique vision with authorial gravitas sufficient to establish it as one of the contributing voices in The Literature 1.0 – in a relatively polar contradistinction to all those sexy young memethings out cruising ScholarWeb 3.14159265…

  11. “disciplined, that is, to the standard objectified in an imagined set of readings shared by the entire editorial board of the leading journal of your field, imagined as constitutive of a tractable “qualifying” limit to the set of readings necessary for you to express your own unique vision with authorial gravitas sufficient to establish it as one of the contributing voices in The Literature 1.0”

    I believe they call that “choking it to death”.

  12. one other point: I think the issue here is that people keep pushing for “original” ideas to come out of a thesis. Give me a fucking break. Original? When you spent 3 months in the field and read maybe 10 books?

    Sure it CAN be original, but I can’t imagine why having “too much information” would be a problem if a particular project had a practical goal aside “being original”. The problem is, so many academics refuse to drop the “pure research” goal which has no real criteria aside originality to qualify it.

    Get involved in a project people are truely connected to, and all of a sudden all that material to read is a great thing. Maybe some academics could stop forcing their students to do projects alone, – as a group we can consume ALL that information.

    1. Emphasis on single researcher.
    2. Emphasis on “new ideas” as opposed to “practical ones”.
    3. Refusal to care if people read what they write. It’s becoming acceptable practice to say “no one will read it anyways”. If this is true, don’t !@#!@# write it.

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