Informavores: Beings that Produce and Consume Information
How information consumption drives living organisms—especially humans.
Posted Mar 28, 2019
Information is all around us. It doesn’t only appear in obvious forms, like in newspapers or scientific articles. Information can also be found in the form of sensations, like the feeling of the sun on our skin or the taste of delicious chocolate. It can be uncomfortable feelings from over-heated rooms or the thirst from salty food. It’s also in the artifacts we create, such as literature, art, or tools. Information is all around us and we are tasked with sifting through it in order to find the meaningful bits.
We already had plenty of information sources from the environment throughout our evolution. A simple example is the ability to determine what can be eaten and what is dangerous and should be avoided. With the evolution of language, humans became even more hungry for complex and hierarchically structured information. With the industrial and digital revolutions, we now have become insatiable “informavores,” constantly consuming and producing all sorts of information (for better or worse). We can communicate with others at any time and consult online sources of news and media in various forms (we check our phones quite often, an average of 52 times a day for Americans). There is no doubt that the average person now has access to many sources of information, in addition to the information found in the natural world, which is often competing for our attention and can make some of us easily distracted.
There’s a reason why we are driven to consume information. From an early evolutionary perspective, living organisms require a “smart” or selective processing of environmental information in order to survive. From finding sources of sustenance (sunlight, food, water) to an appropriate mate, evolution has shaped attention in a way that promotes the detection of relevant information, as well as the ability to transfer this information to others. All living organisms are essentially information omnivores—or informavores—that consume information to survive in increasingly more complex environments.
The term “informavore” was used by the psychologist George Miller (1983) to describe how the human mind interacts with the environment, and by the cognitive scientist Zenon Pylyshyn (1984) to describe how cognitive processes are analogous to computer processing. While some may argue that the brain does not function as a computer, the inverse is more reasonable. The computer behaves like a brain (i.e., by processing information) in a way that might be more powerful than the human brain in some respects (e.g., in terms of memory storage) and yet not nearly as powerful in other, more fundamental respects (in terms of intelligent processing that results in creativity and emotional output, including empathy). In the most basic formalization, living organisms are informavores that must detect, process, and produce meaningful information to survive.
Informavores can be classified into various “levels” based on their information-processing abilities. This ranges from the basic information registration of organisms seeking fundamental elements for nourishment to the complexity of human psychology, with abilities to document and build on existing information. We will investigate the lives of different types of informavores, varying in the level of complexity they can process. For now, we will start with the one that is most familiar to us—the human informavore.
Humans exhibit a complex level of information consumption. Naturally, it’s based on evolutionarily important tasks for survival—but there’s much more. We have a sophisticated way in which we record the knowledge we have and share it with larger numbers of people. From cave art to books to blogs, we have many ways of building on information to support cultural, scientific, and social advances. We consume news, art, scientific knowledge, gossip, and entertainment (among many other things), and our attention is frequently tasked with balancing and deciding where our cognitive energy should go. One can argue that we have evolved to consume more “social” and other types of information than ever before. Communication is key for supporting a complex social system and is necessary for human cooperation and coexistence, so there is no question why it has evolved.
Part of information-seeking is related to survival, trying to understand the world and how to succeed in it. But a lot of it is for entertainment and frankly, just for the sake of it—to seek pleasure, novelty, and delight from stimuli. Our desire to consume information also has increased due to a manipulation of this drive that consumer-focused entities have exploited in order to sell things to us. Attention has become commodified, compartmentalized, classified, and exploited. Part of it is that we want to gain knowledge, but part of it stems from our tendency to become reliant on the constant stimulation and the social reinforcement that this information consumption produces. (It is now facing a growing backlash; see, for example, this article on the “attention economy”). It is a kind of nice vertigo we all fall into, without necessarily good results.
Not all information is created equal. Our attentional systems have evolved to process a lot of information, more than what enters our conscious experience. Otherwise, if everything that attention processed entered consciousness, we would be overwhelmed by the information that the brain processes (see our previous post on "Consciousness and Information"). Consequently, information with emotional content tends to be prioritized more so than neutral stimuli. The detection of valence (pleasant or dangerous objects) can trigger a more engaged consumption of information, likely related to more instinctual responses for survival. This is where conscious experience may be key.
Compared to other living organisms, it is possible that we consume too much information, leading to cognitive overload and if sustained it could turn into generalized anxiety (many posts on Psychology Today cover this topic, such as this one on information overload). Do we, as humans, need to refocus our information gathering to more crucial sources? Is there an ideal level of information gathering that suits our mental health? How are we to regulate the basic drive to consume information? Is this overtaxing of attention distinctive of the human species? It would seem so, and in a profound way—we consume information not only to succeed and survive but also as a matter of personal identity.
Understanding how information consumption evolved may help us better understand what we need and what we don’t, in terms of necessary sources of information. Do we really need to watch television news on a 24-hour cycle? Do we really need to check our social media every hour? Like all things, there is a balance to what is necessary and what is too much. To understand this better, in the next posts we will consider the most basic type of informavore—the single-celled organism.
Miller, G. A. (1983). Informavores. In F. Machlup & U. Mansfield (Eds.), The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages (pp. 111-113). New York: Wiley.
Pylyshyn, Z. W. (1984). Computation and Cognition: Toward a Foundation for Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.