Joho the Blog[2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2) - Joho the Blog

[2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2)

Yesterday I tried to explain my sense that we’re not really suffering from information overload, while of course acknowledging that there is vastly more information out there than anyone could ever hope to master. Then a comment from Alex Richter helped me clarify my thinking.

We certainly do at times feel overwhelmed. But consider why you don’t feel like you’re suffering from information overload about, say, the history of stage costumes, Chinese public health policy, the physics of polymers, or whatever topic you would never have majored in, even though each of these topics contains an information overload. I think there are two reasons those topics don’t stress you.

First, and most obviously, because (ex hypothesis) you don’t care about that topic, you’re not confronted with having to hunt down some piece of information, and that topic’s information is not in your face.

But I think there’s a second reason. We have been taught by our previous media that information is manageable. Give us 23 minutes and we’ll give you the world, as the old radio slogan used to say. Read the daily newspaper — or Time or Newsweek once a week — and now you have read the news. That’s the promise implicit in the old media. But the new medium promises us instead edgeless topics and endless links. We know there is no possibility of consuming “the news,” as if there were such a thing. We know that whatever topic we start with, we won’t be able to stay within its bounds without doing violence to that topic. There is thus no possibility of mastering a field. So, sure, there’s more information than anyone could ever take in, but that relieves us of the expectation that we will master it. You can’t be overwhelmed if whelming is itself impossible.

So, I think our sense of being overwhelmed by information is an artifact of our being in a transitional age, with old expectations for mastery that the new environment gives the lie to.

No, this doesn’t mean that we lose all responsibility for knowing anything. Rather, it means we lose responsibility for knowing everything.

6 Responses to “[2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2)”

  1. I used to suffer from information overload. I do not so much anymore. Three reasons, of which the third adds something new to this thread.

    1. Filtering technologies are better. I can manage Twitter streams better with tools like TweetDeck. The effectiveness of filters are situational and constantly need tinkering.

    2. I accept I cannot know everything. This is like the difference between Google Reader where I can be certain of everything I have and have not read, and Twitter, where I just pluck items from the stream.

    3. Necessity has made me a much more efficient scanner of information , while still slowing down to go deep for the good stuff. This is different from #1 and builds on #2. My brain has been reprogrammed. I am a better filter than I used to be.

  2. Ever walk into a buffet and exclaim,”I can’t eat all that!”

    Or, was a fire nozzle ever forced into your mouth? Following that, has anyone chosen to be waterboarded?

    Clay Shirky’s “filter failure” presents a light conundrum. At which end of the communication is the “filter failure”? Since the Internet removed the previous media filter it is our turn to accept the responsibility for filtering. In this case, I chose the information waterboard.

  3. The buffet example is great: At our university we have restaurant with a buffet since January. I love this all you can eat buffet thing. But my colleagues and I agreed that at least in the first 2, 3 weeks everyone of us ate too much, just because of “the opportunity to try everything”. So we had to get used to the fact that we had this opportunity, but should not overeat.
    In my opinion it’s the same with information. As David already wrote in his comment ( our sources of information are no more constrained. Now we feel overwhelmed. Thus, we have to accept that we cannot know everything and lower our expectations to master all information available (on the topics relevant for us).
    I my opinion it does not matter whether you call this information overload or not. These expectations and the feeling of being overwhelmed will pose a big, big challenge for many companies and their employees in the next years. Both employees and their bosses will have to lower their expectations and employees should be supported to not get lost.
    Thank you David for this second post and helping me clarifying my thinking, too.

  4. We know that communication is important, personally I find interesting its educational function
    What do you think about the direct relationship between communication and education and awareness and critical thinking skills related to communication tools, in particular the media, and the selection that we do

  5. […] [2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2)- David Weinberger, March 9, 2012 […]


    The core assumption behind information overload is that the information we want is the same as the information we need or like. Therefore, we cannot with good reason cut back on the information we want, because it reflects stuff that is important to us. Hence, thanks to the web we are overloaded with needed information that we can’t help wanting. However, from the perspective of contemporary affective neuroscience, wanting and liking are NOT the same thing, and are governed by entirely different neural processes. Thus, what we want is different from what we need because wanting and liking represent distinctive neurological events. Therefore, the key underlying premise of information overload that everything we want is the same as everything we need is based on cognitive principles that have no basis in neural reality, and the concept of information overload must therefore be abandoned.

    The linked article questions the concept of information overload by challenging this most elementary underlying assumption. Based on the work of the distinguished neuropsychologist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan (who also vetted and endorsed it), it is simple, short, and uses a Boston Red Sox title run to make its very radical point. Hope you ‘like’ it or at the very least the Red Sox!

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