How we’re building Mem to combat information overload and prioritize peace of mind
Originally posted to the Memo on August 9, 2022.
This blog post is about how to manage information overload in the digital age. It discusses how technology has made information more accessible and easier to share, but also how this can lead to anxiety. The author describes how to counter some of the effects of information overload, including by using Mem’s latest feature, Mem It for Twitter.
At the beginning of this year, the Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek reviewed the latest installment in the Matrix franchise, Matrix Resurrections, for the UK magazine The Spectator. So far, so familiar; Žižek has written much on these movies in the past. In the final paragraph, however, there’s a sting in the tail. Žižek writes:
Every reader has for sure noticed that, in my description of the movie, I heavily rely on a multitude of reviews which I extensively quote. The reason is now clear: in spite of its occasional brilliance, the film is ultimately not worth seeing — which is why I also wrote this review without seeing it.
On the one hand, this is a shameless and provocative abdication of what we consider to be the basic responsibility of a reviewer: that he has consumed the material on which he is passing judgment. It’s funny. At the same time, however, I felt there was a very relatable sentiment lurking beneath Žižek’s closing lines. In the Information Age, deciding what to consume and what not to consume — that is, what and what not to expend mental energy on — is crucial if you want to manage your time and your well-being effectively. As Tiago Forte writes: “unless we make conscious, strategic decisions about what we consume, we’ll always be at the mercy of what others want us to see”.
Information overload — the sense that one possesses too much information to make effective decisions based on it — and information anxiety — the feeling of ill-ease produced by the gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand — are not new phenomena. The Harvard historian Ann Blair, for example, has traced these concepts back to antiquity, when scholars first began to collect and collate manuscripts. Still, the sensation of having “too much to know”, as the title of Blair’s book has it, is more acute and widespread than ever in the digital age. Every day, we have to marshal between the huge amount of constantly-updated information available online, and the limited time we each have to consume that information. And the more time we spend consuming information, the harder it gets to turn around and then be productive ourselves. We’re all too acutely aware of the gaps in our knowledge. Creative paralysis sets in.
Technology writer Clay Shirky has claimed information overload is not the result of the increased availability of information, per se, but due to “filter failure”. The fact that information is more easily accessible, more easily shared with others than ever before is a net-positive one; the onus is on us, personally, to find ways to appropriately gatekeep the flow of information into our lives. But that’s tricky, because as a species, we humans want to take information in, make sense of it. That’s why we see recognizable shapes in the clouds, in tea-leaves, in ink-blots, in rock formations on the moon. Our default mode is receptivity, not disinterest. That wasn’t such a problem two hundred years ago, when the platforms for the dissemination of information were comparatively limited. But in our current media landscape, that propensity toward receptivity needs to be checked if we don’t want to burn out, feel like there’s so much to know that it’s impossible to even get started.
So, how do we do that? How can we counter some of the ill-effects of information overload — on both mental well-being and productivity? How do we strengthen our filters for irrelevant information, while also configuring them so that they let truly relevant information, information that we can make productive use of, pass through? That’s one of the questions we keep asking ourselves at Mem. We want to help our users find ways to take on information in a sustainable way and remain productive, to be able to stay focused on one task when necessary, but also have the tools at hand to draw together disparate pieces of information easily and seamlessly.
We introduced Focus mode to hide Mem’s interface while you’re writing in the app, so that you can concentrate on your current task without distractions.
We’re building out Mem X’s AI to make it truly self-organizing, which means minimizing the amount of information-filtering and -categorization that you need to do manually.
Now our latest feature, Mem It for Twitter, is part of this ongoing project.
When you connect your Twitter account to Mem, you can reply to a Twitter thread, mention @memdotai, and receive, among other things, an AI-generated summary of the thread’s contents. We’re thinking of this aspect of Mem It as a form of dimensionality reduction, productively transforming high-dimensional data (a detailed argument) into low-dimensional data (a summary of the argument’s most important beats). By providing a brief synopsis of a thread’s contents, we’re hoping to make it easier for Mem users to assimilate new information quickly without feeling overwhelmed by every last detail.
But we also think Mem It is valuable as a productivity tool. That’s because it makes it easier to slot new information into your wider personal understanding of a topic. Reading a quick summary of a Twitter thread’s most important points, you can more easily figure out how that information forms a node in your existing knowledge networks. And when you know that, it’s easier to process and retain that information, and make use of it in generative ways.
You’ll notice that we prefaced this blog post with an AI-generated summary of its contents. As Mem builds, we’re excited about the possibility of expanding this technology to domains beyond Twitter, to summarize content such as news articles and academic papers — allowing you to make more informed decisions about the content you choose to read in full, and spend more time creating rather than consuming.