Joho the Blog » information overload

March 8, 2012

[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]


December 28, 2009

[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.


December 27, 2009

[2b2k] First draft of first chapter sort of done

[NOTE: These posts tagged "2b2k' (Too Big to Know") are about the process of writing a book. They therefore talk about the ideas in the book rather incidentally..]

It’s not quite right to say that I’ve finished a first draft of chapter one. More accurately: I’ve stopped typing and have gone back to the beginning. It needs so much work that it doesn’t even constitute a draft.

I read it to our son last night as he trotted on the elliptical trainer in the basement. He thought it’s better than I do, but that’s why we have families. He also offered useful comments: Opening with a recitation of factoids about the growth of info has been done (although he professed to find it amusing); I say three or four times too often that the basics of knowledge are changing; it wasn’t entirely clear how the idea of information overload has gone from a psychological syndrome to a cultural challenge. All too true.

Hearing it out loud helps a lot; I always read drafts of chapters to my wife. I realized, for example, that the long (too long) section on the history of facts adopts an off-putting academic tone. That doesn’t worry me, because adjusting the tone is a normal part of re-writing, although it does require the painful removal of “good stuff” that actually isn’t very interesting. I remain quite concerned about the overall structure, and, worse, whether the chapter is clear in its readerly aims.

So, I’m going to put in a new opening. Although the technique is overdone and predictable, I will probably start with some very quick examples intended to show that knowledge is becoming networked. Then I will tighten the section on information overload, which aims at suggesting that knowledge overload results in a change in the nature of knowledge (in a way that info overload did not change the nature of info). Then, into the reduced section on the history of facts, which aims to challenge our notion that knowledge is a building that depends on having a firm foundation. (I also want to shake the reader by the shoulders and say that the idea of knowledge is not as obvious and eternal as we’ve thought.)

Also, I changed the title of Chapter One yesterday, from “Undoing Knowledge” to “The Great Unnailing.”

And, this morning, while on the ol’ elliptical, I read a review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, which, because of its discussion of the inevitability of disagreements, seems like it might be relevant. A few paces on, it also seemed to me that a suitable ending for the book might be a brief section that asks: If we didn’t have a concept of knowledge, would we now invent one? Is that concept still useful? I mean something inchoate by this, for clearly it is useful to distinguish between reliable and unreliable ideas. But that’s always a matter of degree. Would we separate out a special class of specially reliable information, and, more to the point, would we think of it as a realm of truth, a mirror of nature, or our highest calling? I think not. But I don’t know if this is an idea with which to open the book, close the book, or ignore.


December 16, 2009

[2b2k] From information overload to knowledge overload

[I'm not sure how much of a commentary I'm going to blog about the course of writing my new book, Too Big to Know. Here's a first post. It makes me personally uncomfortable to talk about this process, so I may not continue to do so. Also, please note the "2b2k" in the title, providing you with an instant way of recognizing posts you want to skip.]

I’ve spent a couple of days writing an opening that I think doesn’t work, although I can probably use it elsewhere in the book. And now I am stopped by the need to choose a fork.

The opening looks at the history of information overload, going back to the book Future Shock, and pointing to the coining of “sensory overload” in 1950. I look at how pathetically small was the amount of info that seemed threatening to us back then. And I point at research (especially by Ann Blair and Richard Yeo) on information overload in the 16th-18th centuries. (Yes, I have the Seneca quote as well). All this is in service of the point that information overload has changed now that it’s gone exponentially exponential [thanks for the link, Linda Stone] and is so much a part of our ordinary context.

Next, I think I want to gesture at one way of understanding the change: We now face “knowledge overload.” But, the point of the book is that knowledge is no longer what it once was, so I don’t want to point to ordinary cases of knowing things; I fundamentally disagree with the idea that knowledge is to information as information is to data. So, I’m thinking that I might here use an example that will show the reader that this is a real, concrete issue, and it is not exactly the issue that she probably assumes it is from the fact that I’m talking about “knowledge.”

Or maybe I should jump straight into explaining what knowledge has been, since I’m trying to get to a section on the history of facts.

Fortunately, it’s lunch time. I choose the metal fork!


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