Joho the Blog » [2b2k] No, now that you mention it, we’re not overloaded with information

[2b2k] No, now that you mention it, we’re not overloaded with information

On a podcast today, Mitch Joel asked me something I don’t think anyone else has: Are we experiencing information overload? Everyone else assumes that we are. Including me. I found myself answering no, we are not. There is of course a reasonable and valid reason to say that we are. But I think there’s also an important way in which we are not. So, here goes:

There are more things to see in the world than any one human could ever see. Some of those sights are awe-inspiring. Some are life-changing. Some would bring you peace. Some would spark new ideas. But you are never going to see them all. You can’t. There are too many sights to see. So, are you suffering from Sight Overload?

There are more meals than you could ever eat. Some are sooo delicious, but you can’t live long enough to taste them all. Are you suffering from Taste Overload?

Or, you’re taking a dip in the ocean. The water extends to the horizon. Are you suffering from Water Overload? Or are you just having a nice swim?

That’s where I think we are with information overload. Of course there’s more than we could ever encounter or make sense of. Of course. But it’s not Information Overload any more than the atmosphere is Air Overload.

It only seems that way if you think you can master information, or if you think there is some defined set of information you can and must have, or if you find yourself repeating the mantra of delivering the right information to the right people at the right time, as if there were any such thing.

Information overload is so 1990s.

 


[The next day: See my follow-on post]

17 Responses to “[2b2k] No, now that you mention it, we’re not overloaded with information”

  1. Clay Shirky did say two years ago something pretty much similar. It wasn’t ‘information overload’ but a ‘filter failure’, http://boingboing.net/2010/01/31/clay-shirky-on-infor.html

  2. Of course! I quote that all the time, including in my book, and I love it.

    But I think I’m saying something slightly different: It’s not filter failure. It’s not information overload.

  3. Another Clay, Clay Johnson, would say that there’s no information overload, there’s only information overconsumption (http://radar.oreilly.com/2011/11/information-overload-overconsumption-diet.html). Pretty much in line with your argument.

  4. […] Wer über Social Media diskutiert, landet irgendwann auch beim “Information Overload”. Produzieren die neuen, ungesteuerten Kanäle nicht eine Flut von Informationen, die niemand mehr beherrschen kann? Und sollte man deswegen nicht gerade in der Bildung mit diesen Möglichkeiten sorgfältig und vorsichtig umgehen? Hier ist, was David Weinberger fragt: Sprechen wir von einem Sight/ Taste/ Water Overload, weil es mehr Plätze zu sehen, Dinge zu schmecken, Wasser zum Schwimmen gibt, als das unser Leben ausreicht, alle Möglichkeiten wahrzunehmen. David Weinberger: “Information overload is so 1990s.” David Weinberger, Joho the Blog, 8. März 2012 […]

  5. “Having a nice swim” in a [presumably] calm ocean might not be the right comparison. Lving in today’s infosphere feels more like swiming while having firehoses aimed at you.

    One can avoid the urge to sample all the good meals more easily, I suggest, than the blizzard of intrusive data. The consumer’s role is certainly not passive and maybe not even preeminent.

  6. The key is this clause: “or if you think there is some defined set of information you can and must have …”

    Isn’t selling exactly that concept the business of many of those conference-clubbers around you? That whenever some event can be traced to blogs or Twitter or Facebook, etc, there’s the pitch “Why didn’t *you* know that – so you could get a jump on the competition, before they got a jump on you?”. Moreover, isn’t part of the social-media party line to praise the destruction of institutions that mediate conflicting information, in favor of partisanship that places the onus of the work on the individual? That’s part of what people are worried about. While your phrase is technically true, it strikes me sort of like “You don’t need money, unless you want any social status”.

  7. David, I do neither agree with Clay Shirky, nor with you. In my opinion there IS filter failure (from an objective point of view) AND there are also many people that DO feel – for this same reason – overloaded with information. And might perhaps also feel so if there were better filters.

    I think what is missing in your comparison is what I would term “relevant changes”. Is it important to me how many “things there are to see in the world”? No. Because they do not have a direct impact on my personal life. Is it important to know how many of these things are changing with possible impact on my personal life. Yes! There is more and more information on changes that has impact on my personal live. And I perceive or experience (comparative) disadvantages if I am not having this information.

    From 1999-2002 the amount of stored information was growing about 30% a year (*). This might have even increased. The first problem is to filter out of this impressive amount what is relevant for me. But even then you have to handle so much new input.

    Who would have thought, five years ago, of the Arabic spring (in the way it happened), of European countries on the brink of national bankruptcy, of millions of people sharing a huge amount of personal data in the web, …

    But now: Will you invest in Greek government bonds? Or better in facebook shares, a company that just consists of thousands of servers and user data. Do you have an overview over the pricing of your mobile provider? I don’t. Do you know how many recent mobile phones Nokia offers? 33. Do I want to compare these to find the best mobile for me? Too much information! I think markets like ebay, amazon, … are also successful, because they help us to get an overview over the best solution that one day we search for it. Tomorrow all might already be different. (**)

    We are not really wondering about these things, because we got used to it. But we are living times of rapid changes and it is important to many of us to get access to the changes that are relevant for us. But we have problems to handle all these relevant changes in time and for this reason: There is information overload.

    (*)http://www2.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/execsum.htm#summary
    (**) Market transparency is another reason, of course.

  8. First, to clarify Shirky’s point: He does think filters fail. But he thinks (as I understand him) that we then go in and fix the filters. Eventually they’ll fail again. I agree. In Everything Is Misc I try to show a bit of that dance (or dialectic, if you prefer), using Amazon’s reviews as an example. Your Nokia example I think will turn out to be an example of a failed filter than someone will have a commercial incentive to fix.

    But on your broader point: I agree that we feel overwhelmed at times. I suspect – no evidence will follow! – that we feel this way because we’re living through a transition period in which we still believe (thanks to the previous medium’s training) that it is possible to master topics. We wouldn’t feel overwhelmed if we didn’t carry with us a sense that we really should be able to understand the Greek crisis or Facebook’s financial future or the causes of Arab Spring. That was easier to believe back when our sources of information were so constrained. As we lose the expectation, and even the normative demand, that we should be able to comprehend these large, complex events, we will (I think, perhaps, maybe) lose the sense that we are overwhelmed.

  9. Thanks for your answer, David. I agree that we should perhaps reduce our expectation to comprehend everything that happens “out there”. And this should also reduce the feeling to be overwhelmed.
    However, I see a need to comprehend or cope with more and more information to be able to live our daily lifes and not having “comparative disadvantages”, e.g. somebody saying, “you should have known like me, it’s in the internet.” after becoming victim of fraud (or whatever).
    To be honest I have no good personal example -> I should think on it. Perhaps just reducing our expectations is enough. ;)

  10. David/Alex: doesn’t this feel analogous to the transition from the time when Francis Bacon or Leibnitz or somebody could know all that was to be known and the modern (evanescing) paradigm of topical or subject area expertise?

  11. […] midi, j’intercepte un tweet qui mène vers ce billet de David Weinberger, où il aborde la question de l’information dans une toute autre perspective qui, ma foi, a […]

  12. […] sur le besoin de développer de bons filtres. Ce midi, j’intercepte un tweet qui mène vers ce billet de David Weinberger, où il aborde la question de l’information dans une toute autre perspective qui, ma foi, a […]

  13. […] d’information. Ci dessous, un extrait : Ce midi, j’intercepte un tweet qui mène vers ce billet de David Weinberger, où il aborde la question de l’information dans une toute autre perspective qui, ma foi, a tout […]

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