If I catch sight of a dark cloud, I usually check the weather radar for incoming rain. I’m rarely going anywhere—umbrellas and waterproof jackets aren’t a concern, I just really want to know whether it’ll rain, and check the radar with the frequency of an addict. Such is the strength of my idle curiosity, and desire to know whether the clouds on the horizon will wet my local area.
There isn’t a person on earth who could tear me away from my beloved radar. It’s one of countless services that the Internet has bombarded me with, instantly accessible, and satisfying my craving for information. It strengthens and encourages my idle curiosity—the desire to know something that has no use; pointless information that I’m compelled to consume, despite it having no apparent value.
Why are we such junkies for this kind of info?
Jumping back 2,000 million years in our evolutionary timeline, when we were mere bacteria, 5,000 times smaller than a pea¹, the first information we needed was about our environment, which allowed us to move away from danger, and towards food. As bacteria, we got this information by developing an ability to detect chemical changes—our ancestors’ first ever sense. The information we needed back then was a matter of life or death, and as our species evolved into weirder and more complex creatures—sponges, fruit flies, salamanders, shrews, howler monkeys², and more—our senses and brains developed too, allowing us to detect and control our environments with incredible precision, eventually placing us at the top of the food chain.
As a Westerner in the 21st century, I don’t have to worry about being swooped and carried away by a bald eagle, or mauled by a flash of black and orange. My need for critical information has lessened, but the survival needs of my evolutionary ancestors is entrenched in my brain, and so regardless of being a modern human with a respectable job and a taste for Japanese whiskey, I still crave information because for 2,000 million years, information has been a way to predict and control my environment. My species evolved in a world of razor sharp teeth and claws, so I want as much certainty as I can get.
Enter the World Wide Web—an unfathomable amount of information made accessible by Google. Our ancestors never had access to such a treasure of novel curiosities, and when it was thrust into our world in the early 90s, we could hardly believe how incredible it was; how useful and endlessly stimulating it was. But information is only good if it improves our lives in some way, and the dopaminergic reward system in our brain doesn’t account for this distinction. It views information in the same way it views money and food:3 valuable, and worth seeking. Information enhances prediction and decreases uncertainty (helping us become better survivors and procreators), so we’re given a squirt of dopamine to propel us towards the “reward,” regardless of whether the information is valuable.
“Just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful—what some may call idle curiosity.”Professor Ming Hsu, neuroscientist
Now, defining whether a piece of information is valuable is stepping into murky philosophical territory, where subjectivity reigns as king. After god’s timely death, assigning meaning and value has fallen to the individual. Our consciousness allows us to reflect on our decisions, and write our own commandments. What you value now falls within your responsibility, and that includes deciding whether a piece of online information is helping to improve your life, or whether your dopaminergic reward system is luring you into the boundless novelty of the Web, trying to make you “safer,” but making you more anxious.
I look up a ton of information to satisfy my idle curiosity. It isn’t difficult to identify—for example:
- Checking IMDB to find out where I know an actor from.
- Checking the social media account of an old colleague to see how well he’s doing compared to me.
- Obsessively checking my Medium stats.
The list goes on. None of this information helps me. All it does is satisfy my idle curiosity; my burning desire to just know, so that my environment feels a little more predictable and certain. It’s nonsense, of course—the modern equivalent of a Neanderthal constantly peeking out of his cave to check for a tiger, except today, there’s a hell of a lot more for us to check. The reward system in our brain doesn’t know the difference between death and triviality; between tiger and actor. It just seeks, seeks, seeks, driving us towards as much information as possible so that we become masters of our environment. But with boundless curiosities at our fingertips, we instead become senseless slaves whose existence is defined by an appetite for the shallow and thoughtless, unaware that our freedom has been taken from us.
There’s no value in knowing for the sake of knowing. It fragments our attention, scatters our brain, and steals our time, while training us to be mere consumers—lab rats pushing levers for so-called rewards. As we slip into a constant state of foraging, satisfying our idle curiosity over and over, we strengthen the neurons for the behaviour in our brains, making them ever easier and favourable, and replacing neurons once used for challenging and worthwhile tasks such as reading books. Books seem laughable in the age of the Web—why read a book, when I can read a snippet? There’s no longer any inclination for the long-winded or difficult. We’ve plummeted to the abysmal reality of the information junkie, stalking the hollow pages of social media for our next hit of mindless stimulation.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing, helping our species invent technologies that extend and improve our lives. Idle curiosity is a peril that steals our attention and damages our collective intelligence. Our digital addiction has us drowning in a sea of worthless information, still desperate to satisfy our craving even as we gasp for breath.
For a lifejacket, we need only to log off.
- 2007, Understanding the size of bacteria, BBC Bitesize
- Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale
- Laura Counts, Information addiction: How information is like snacks, money, and drugs to your brain, UC Berkeley