filters, part one

Sort of a bulletpoint braindump thinking aloud, to be returned to: general thesis – that in an information age, what becomes vital is how we filter information.


There is too much information. We cannot possibly attend to everything that is happening. Nor should we want to.

Most available information is irrelevant to us.

How are we to know what is relevant or irrelevant?

For this we both need an internal sense of what is relevant to us, and external means of filtering what is relevant from what is not relevant.

Most important of these is the internal sense of what is relevant. Do you know who you are and what you are doing? Where you are and where you are going and why? And do you know therefore what it is you need to know, and what you need to pay attention to?

Because until you have this internal sense, how can you possibly navigate the flood of information? There is no way to know what is relevant. And there is no shortage of information clamouring for attention.

We do not currently know how to filter our information. This is true both in the sense that we do not know how to physically filter the information coming in, and in the sense that we do not know what we most need to know.

A feature of information that needs to be balanced here:  If we knew it already it would not be information – the fact of being unknown is what gives it its value – but how are we to discern what we don’t know is worth becoming aware of?

Even though we are not aware of how to filter, we must of necessity already be filtering. We are ignoring most of reality in order to focus on whatever it is we are doing. The corollary then is we don’t know what we are doing when we filter information – it is sort of random. This seems non ideal.

We need to become aware of our existing filters, our existing mechanisms to deal with reality, and how we can adapt them to meet our actual needs.

10 Responses to “filters, part one”

  1.   Pearce
    May 26th, 2010 | 4:19 pm


    A lot of filtering seems really obvious.

    For example: I choose to disregard anything that relates to gossip about celebrities, or about sports. There are other categories obviously, but by choosing to ignore everything in those two catagories I eliminate an enormous proportion of the (mis-)information that is pushed at me on a daily basis.

    For what I choose to focus on, one thing is anything that affects my life directly, such as politics in the country I live in. Fortunately I live in a very small country, so I can pay attention to pretty much everything in local politics. (Morning Report alone gives me a good percentage of what I need to know.)

    For things that are less small, I find sources that pre-filter which seem to offer things that I find interesting. For instance, I’ve found that Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio show seems unusually interesting to me in its reportage of science and culture, so I listen to that (as a combination of live and podcast). This enables me to chase down leads I would not otherwise hear of.

    I also rely on friends & associates who habitually pay attention to things that I do not habitually pay attention to. If something seems interesting to me, I can follow it up.

    The whole thing about “who you are, what you are doing, where your are going, and why” is pretty important, but these things tend to change over time. Part of what changes them is – oddly enough – new information. So while it is important to have this knowledge of self, it’s also important to not expect any filters you have now (or indeed any notion you have of self) to be set in stone.

    It’s interesting to me how quickly we can filter out things that seem irrelevant to us, so that they become almost invisible – and also how quickly we pick up on them if we discover relevance in them, to the point where we suddenly notice them everywhere.

    I don’t actually think that the amount of information has particularly increased, btw. What has increased is our access to it. The universe was always bigger than we could comprehend – but now we’re starting to get a picture of what that actually means. 🙂


  2.   Rimu
    May 27th, 2010 | 10:31 pm

    The mind is just one big filter

    billy Reply:

    Rimu: yeah. and the better we understand how it works, the better we live.
    Pearce: yeah, the need for ongoing updating of our filters is something I argue for strongly. and, while in a sense there was always more than could be known, most definitions of information would agree that information is increasing, especially in terms of human produced data…

  3.   Vince
    May 29th, 2010 | 12:31 am

    Sometimes, of course, “filtering” can lead to other problems. The recent freakout about the way that your Facebook id and friend network are used to create “tailor-made experiences” for you as you move across various sites, is an interesting case. In theory, FB has attempted to make a filter a bit like what you describe. In practice, it’s hard to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being watched.

  4.   Pearce
    June 1st, 2010 | 9:10 am

    Discovering that I could log on to Facebook from my xbox was pretty alarming, until I actually tried it. Thank god that the interface is so bad. 😉

  5.   bruce
    June 4th, 2010 | 9:23 pm

    >what becomes vital is how we filter information

    Yes, I agree completely. Arguably this was important =before= we reached this time of content no longer being the bottleneck, with the editorial function now supreme.

    Why do I say this? The existence of old zen parables about (pardon my specifics) the monk who is chased off the cliff by wolves and is falling towards a river full of alligators concentrating on a flower growing on the cliffside that the monk passes on the way down. Enlightenment ensues as is the way of such stories. I am sure you see the point, though.

  6.   Steph
    June 9th, 2010 | 4:54 pm

    Yeah! Interesting.
    I am constantly aware that I may be filtering out things that are potentially of value to me. So many times I’ve discounted a band/person/idea/whatever on the basis of surface impression, then found it to be worthy of interest only when it is shoved right in my face. I haven’t yet found a way to reliably recognise information of value, although it’s something I’m constantly thinking about and trying to gain awareness of….
    This whole question is (ironically or fittingly) becoming more and more pertinent with the rise of social media. And I find myself increasingly relying on trusted friends as pre-filters of the sort Pearce describes – rarely will I explore the blogosphere without a direct recommendation.

  7.   billy
    June 9th, 2010 | 5:34 pm

    vince: what motivates facebook’s notion of “filtering” is capitalism, advertising, and the profit motive. all of these are pretty unrelated to actual humanity (or, in terms of the post, the “internal sense of what is relevant”) and, as such, a filter like that is going to be horribly distorted and not terribly useful in the sense that I am interested in.

  8.   billy
    June 9th, 2010 | 5:39 pm

    bruce: yeah, the zen parable is more about how we give and focus our attention, which is definitely related to the question of filtering as outlined above. however it seems like it applies more to the internal valuing we place upon information we have received (the who are we/what is important stuff), rather than the question of external filtering among too much information.

  9.   billy
    June 9th, 2010 | 5:41 pm

    steph/pearce: the question then is, if we are relying on our friend as filters, how well are our friends filtering? Do they know what they are doing any better than us? Or are they all just plugged into the same sources of misinformation, creating an echo/loop of misinformation masquerading as good data? The danger with friend filtering is the tribal identity / conformity enforcement stuff that comes in to distort our actions. Some of it will be relevant information – but it depends on what you are doing vs what your friends are doing. Leary’s notion of intelligence increase and the internet, especially Twitter, allows you to drastically increase your circle of smart “friends”.