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[2b2k] Notes on the history of information overload

I spent most of today tracking down some information about the history of information overload, so I though I’d blog it in case someone else is looking into this. Also, I may well be getting it wrong, in which case please correct me. (The following is sketchy because it’s just notes ‘n’ pointers.)

I started with Alvin Toffler’s explanation of info overload in the 1970 edition of Future Shock. He introduces the concept carefully, expressing it as the next syndrome up from sensory overload.

So, I tried to find the origins of the phrase “sensory overload.” The earliest reference I could find (after getting some help from the Twitterverse – thanks, Ed Summers! – which pointed me to a citation in the OED) was in coverage of a June, 1958 talk at a conference held at Harvard Medical School. The article in Science (vol 129, p. 222) lists some of the papers, including:

2) “Are there common factors in sensory deprivation, sensory distortion and sensory overload?” by Donald B. Lindsley.

I have not gone through Lindsley’s work to find his first use of the term, and a quick Googling didn’t give me an easy answer to this question.

The concept of sensory overload, as opposed to the term, goes back a ways. Lots of people point to Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life , which he wrote in 1903, although it didn’t have its major effect until a translation was published in English in 1950. That article looks at (“speculates about” actually seems like a more apt phrase) how the sensory over-stimulation common in cities will affect the mental state of the inhabitants. Simmel claims that it makes urban dwellers more reserved, more blase, and more intellect-centered. The over-stimulation Simmel refers to, by the way, is not actually an increase in sensation but an increase in the changes in sensations: a constant roar does not over stimulate us as much as constant changes in noise. (Note that Charles Babbage in his dotage was driven close to insane by the sound of street musicians outside his London apartment.)

The term “sensory overload” seems to have started entering common parlance in the mid to late 1960s. An article in The Nation in 1966 introduces the phrase as if were unfamiliar to readers: “Recent experimentation, however, has confirmed the significance of the problem of sensory overload; that is, of an inability to absorb more than a certain amount of experience in a given time.” [Robert Theobald, “Should Men Compete with Machines”, The Nation, Vol 202, No. 19, 4/19/1966] In 1968, in testimony to a Senate panel on drug experience, a witness used the term and again had to explain what it means [semi-link]. So, we can put the phrase’s rise into ordinary usage right at the beginning of the popular career of psychedelic drugs.

Toffler explains information overload as being just like sensory overload, except it results from too much information. Here he clearly seems to be thinking about information in its ordinary sense: facts, figures, ideas, etc. Yet he explains it by using terms from information science, which thinks about information not as facts and ideas but as strings of bits: info overload occurs when the info exceeds our “channel capacity,” Toffler says.

At this point, info overload was thought of as a type of psychological syndrome affecting our ability to make rational choices. Toffler even warns that our sanity hinges on avoiding it.

In 1974, papers emerged applying this to marketing. Suppose consumers were given too much information about products? Research showed they would be unable to decide among them, or might make irrational decisions. From today’s perspective, the amount of information that constituted overload seems ludicrously low. In one experiment, consumers were given 16 fields of information for products. (See Jacoby, Jacob. “Perspectives on Information Overload.” The Journal of Consumer Research, March 1984, p. 432-435. p. 432) And one suspects that marketers were happy to find a rationalization for keeping consumers less well informed.

But, what’s most interesting to me is how information overload has gone from a psychological syndrome to a mere description of our environment. Few of us worry that we’re going to become gibbering idiots because we’ve been overstimulated with information. When we worry about info overload these days, it’s because we’re afraid we won’t be able to get enough of it.

15 Responses to “[2b2k] Notes on the history of information overload”

  1. There might be some useful information in this article from JSTOR:
    * Information Overload in a Network of Targeted Communication
    * Author(s): Timothy Van Zandt
    * Source: The RAND Journal of Economics, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 542-560
    * Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The RAND Corporation
    * Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1593707

    Abstract
    As the costs of generating and transmitting information fall, the main bottlenecks in communication are becoming the human receivers, who are overloaded with information. For networks of targeted communication, I discuss the meaning of information overload, provide a theoretical treatment as the outcome of strategic interaction between senders, and examine mechanisms for allocating the attention of receivers. Such mechanisms increase the cost of sending messages and thereby shift the task of screening messages from the receivers to the senders, who know the contents of the messages. If the communication cost is low, then a tax on sending messages benefits all the senders if either the tax is redistributed to them as lump-sum transfers or their information about the receivers is sufficiently accurate.

  2. Very interesting material. And very clever organized.

    Indeed, progressive overloading is happening in many fields. And it was happening also in the past. (O tempora O mores!)

    Overloading is actually produced by our inability to deal properly with too many incoming information streams. We try to keep up as we can, usually becoming inevitably less accurate in judgment and in quality of our attention.

    Let’s simply consider the communication channels we currently have to deal with: classic books and papers, computer notes, emails, blogs, websites, phone, sms, chat, twitter… you say it.

    Information cycle is also very fast. In my childhood I had pen pal friends all over the world, and it took months for us to exchange some message.
    Now it takes seconds.
    And this is amazing.

    Our words were more carefully studied, slowly digested and consumed. Tiny nonexplicit bits were decoded and ripped from pen tremblings. We were actually interpreting and creating inner meaning. (Was it useful?)

    Alas, not that time anymore. Let’s not regret. World changed. We changed too.

    Now our messages are swallowed and maybe digested (mostly un-understood) in a handful of milliseconds, decoded by hurry eyes scanning remote flickering screens.

    And we are getting and filtering more and more, and each channel is full of noise. Overall Signal/Noise ratio is -probably- going down. But it is addicting.
    (Oh yes, it would be nice to follow this and that.)

    Simultaneous channels usage is currently happening to me everyday: reading or composing emails while writing a spec in another window, then answering to the fixed phone, and receiving another call on the mobile, and getting crazy, while people around me laugh.

    But don’t worry
    It will get worse.

    let’s enjoy it, and get organized.

    Marco ( @mgua on twitter )

  3. Added a comment on Wordnik linking to this post, from the sensory deprivation entry there. That might be a good place for further discussion. I think Wordnik needs a way to tag comments by type (e.g. etymology vs pointers vs usage vs…)

  4. Thanks for all this.

    I should have found a way to point to Barry Schwartz’s 1978 article that points to the weakness of the overload model, as if we were mere passive receptacles. Queues, Priorities, and Social Process, Social Psychology, Mar 1978, Vol 41, No. 1 pp. 3-12. ␣http://www.jstor.org/stable/3033592

  5. If you haven’t yet looked at the Eppler and Mengis 2004 paper titled “The Concept of Information Overload – A Review of Literature from Organization Science, Accounting, Marketing, MIS, and Related Disciplines” I recommend it. It gives a good view of the history of IO research in several disciplines, and summarizes a lot of the research on this topic. Their framing is interesting too.

  6. […] Shared [2b2k] Notes on the history of information overload. […]

  7. Thanks, all!! Keep ‘em coming!

  8. […] The decade when we became too connected – I remember then 3Com CEO Eric Benhamou talking about the problem of consumers being overconnected back in 1999 at Network+InterOp. Each time we find away around it, the history of information overload goes back at least four decades […]

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  14. […] during the early modern age), and a lot of it has filtered down to less academic sources (such as this blog piece on the specific issue of information overload, with references going all the way back to George Simmel). This article in the Harvard Business […]

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