Is COVID changing the way we think and act?

I’m not talking about the medical impacts, but about the connections between COVID, information and technology. Four articles got me reflecting on this.

A new study in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities assessed the unceasing flow of information regarding the pandemic. Researchers found that “false news, conspiracy theories, and magical cures” are being shared among the public “at an alarming rate”.

The fallout? “Increased anxiety and stress levels, and associated debilitating consequences,” wrote the authors. They even coined a term for this phenomenon: COVIO, which stands for COVID Information Overload.

That can happen even with trusted sources.

There’s a model that suggests we internalize messages in one of two ways. We can do it heuristically – simplifying decision rules to quickly assess content. Or systematically – carefully and deliberatively processing a message.

A study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health noted that information overload re. COVID can have adverse effects. It was associated with the tendency toward greater heuristic and less systematic processing. Why does that matter? People were less likely to enact prevention behaviours when the information was processed heuristically. Another side effect of COVIO.

On the other hand, COVID may have helped to cure technophobia.

That was the hypothesis of an article in Medium. Some people fear technology so shy away from it. Yet when COVID hit, we quickly transitioned out of necessity to remote learning, Zoom meetings, virtual health care, online grocery orders and retailing, etc. The tech was there already, but the uptake skyrocketed.

In fact, a study by Twilio, a cloud communications platform, found that COVID has been the greatest digital accelerant of the past decade. It has sped up companies’ digital communications strategy by a global average of six years.

I don’t want to dwell on COVID but on information overload and technophobia. They might seem like modern concepts. But these worries have long existed.

Those four articles were on my mind as I was reading The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone.

In my last blog, I drew from her book to look at media bias. Gladstone is a media analyst who co-hosts a podcast and syndicated radio show called On the Media. In her book, she also writes about the idea that the latest media technology will harm our concentration, memory, psyche and maybe even communities.

The fear is nothing new. That’s clear from these tidbits Gladstone shared.

Is Google making us stupid?

That was a question posed in a 2008 magazine article by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr said he used to be able to easily immerse himself in a book or lengthy article. No longer. His concentration often drifts soon after he starts reading.

“Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” wrote Carr. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet-Ski.”

Don’t just blame the Internet

Newer media tech has often been seen as threatening. In 1961, the chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission called TV “a vast wasteland”.

Go further back. A 1936 issue of Gramophone reported that radio mystery shows were making kids go to sleep fearful and wake up screaming.

That’s recent history compared to what English author Barnaby Rich said in 1613. In his view, books “so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the idle matter that is every day hatched and brought forth into the world”. Yes, information overload.

Rich wasn’t alone. Look at what Swiss bibliographer Conrad Gessner said in 1545. A century after the printing press emerged, Gessner complained about the “confusing and harmful abundance of books”.

Implanting forgetfulness

Even writing itself was once seen as damaging

Plato laid out the argument. In Phaedrus, circa 370 BCE, he commented on how the ancient Egyptians felt writing would make the people wiser. What if instead, Plato offered, writing could “implant forgetfulness in the soul”.

People “will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

Plato, meet Google. Everything old is new again.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

February 24, 2021

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