We Are Entering an Age of Ultra-Processed Information

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Last week, OpenAI unveiled an incredible new technology that allows you to type in simple prompts and get high-definition videos in return.

Here are two brief examples: “​bling zoo​” and ​”golden retrievers podcasting on top of a mountain.”​

I know these are meant to be funny and to showcase the awesome capabilities of this technology. And yet it made me think that we are entering an age of ultra-processed information.

The cost, both time and financial, of producing information is decreasing exponentially. In parallel, what is increasing exponentially is the ability to piece together truly infinite bits of content to generate something that is alluring but also synthetic.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is exactly what happened to the food supply over the last fifty years. Starting in the 1970s, a steadily escalating number of ultra-processed foods were introduced. Ultra-processed foods are cheap and easy to make. They taste great. But on balance, they are not healthy for us and crowd out more nourishing alternatives.

Ultra-processed foods even change what someone finds palatable, meaning the more of them you eat the less enticing you find whole foods. It’s why once you’ve been snacking on Cheetos for a year it’s hard to want a carrot, even though you know deep down inside the latter is a better choice. It’s also why once you’ve been on TikTok for a year it’s hard to focus on reading a book.

Look what happened to rates of obesity starting in the 1970s and going from there:

You’ve got to wonder if the same exact thing isn’t going to happen with all of the ultra-processed information about to flood the system.

The result won’t be physical obesity. But much like our bodies are meant to handle loads of ultra-processed foods, our minds aren’t meant to handle loads of ultra-processed information. The impact ultra-processed information is already having on mental health, cognitive health, attentional health, and civil health is truly enormous.

The cat is out of the bag and there is no putting it back.

The central construct in Master of Change is “rugged flexibility.” You’ve got to know your values and what and supports you in being your best, and then take those values and apply them to the big changes with which you are faced. Integrating artificial intelligence into our lives will require ongoing rugged flexibility.

All new tools have pros and cons. The industrialization of the food system and processing of food helped to drastically reduce global poverty and hunger. It also led to diseases of too much. Starting with the printing press and going all the way to the internet, the industrialization of information has led to breakthroughs in medicine, design, engineering, and all sorts of other things that have helped humanity. Hopefully artificial intelligence is like rocket-fuel for this path. And yet we’d be foolish not to be wary of its deleterious effects as well.

We’re all going to adapt to it. The question is how.

​Brad

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