Infophilia: love of information. I think we’re all involved in that romance a bit these days, given the abundance and 24/7 availability of information. Anything we want to know is just one Google search away, and we need only to reach for our smartphones to complete that search. It is seductive, this draw to know, and our ability to instantly satiate the cravings just increases our hunger.
What feeds this desire? I think it is at least partly driven by the sense that having information lets us control it. And this is not entirely irrational, as having information is probably a pre-requisite to having control over it. But the having isn’t enough — it’s “necessary but not sufficient” — a part we often gloss over. The need to know is probably also driven by fear of the opposite: fear of being left in the dark. Everyone else can know and does in an instant, so we have to keep up.
If information is our drug of choice, we are in no shortage of dealers. Information and communication technologies, mainly internet-enabled devices and wearables, save us from information withdrawal. Almost every aspect of our lives — banking, healthcare, grocery shopping — has some online, trackable component. The thought of not being able to access something online seems bizarre and unacceptable.
A recent curtain ordering experience got me thinking about dependency on information and the assumption that transparency of information equates to control of it. I ordered some thermal curtains, from an online retailer that was going to ship my order first through UPS and then to USPS. I was given a long delivery estimate, 2 weeks or something (Amazon Prime has spoiled me). A week went by and I thought to myself, “Hmm, where are those curtains?” Armed with my two tracking numbers I took to the internet. On the UPS website, my tracking number was accepted, and I could see the transit points from the warehouse to the USPS facility. Ok, next I went to USPS site and put in that tracking number — no record yet. My curtains were in UPS/USPS purgatory. It stayed like that for days. I once tried calling USPS to ask about it, but was forced to leave a message. More purgatory. I had both tracking numbers and an order number, and it seemed certain that those pieces of information should empower me to know — to understand — where my curtains were. But they didn’t. It was a hole in the matrix. My information had failed me.
(Don’t worry, I eventually got the curtains, but I was left shaken.)
I suspect that information intoxication is also part of what draws people towards direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing. We love information, we love ourselves, so what could be better than more information about ourselves? Whether or not it’s all that useful is secondary. Some argue that DTC genetic testing is at best a waste of money and at worst a path to people misdiagnosing themselves or otherwise unnecessarily freaking out. And I know that can happen and indeed has happened. But for the majority of customers, I think it’s more about the information rush of it. It’s information about more than just a set of curtains you ordered, it’s about the DNA that is in the nucleus of trillions of cells in your body, information about the information that was used to literally build your body. In that sense it’s information2 – a super strong hit. You can argue about whether it’s reasonable, but I think the temptation of data is stronger than reason.
Love of information (infophilia) leads to lots of information (infofullness) which may indeed lead to information letting us down (infofooled). But I don’t see many people turning down the opportunity for more information, or lining up to throw their smart phones off a cliff. The same holds for genetic information, in many respects — even if you made it illegal, people would still find a way to take a hit.