The Myth of Information Overload


We increasingly hear complaints about the stresses and strains of “information overload.”  I have to admit, I’m somewhat skeptical of this term and the phenomena associated with it.

First, this is not a new issue.  To the contrary, I suspect that since the earliest days of civilization, people have complained about information overload.  I can imagine the Town Crier (this was a person in the 1800’s employed by a town to proclaim announcements in the streets) approaching, bell ringing in hand, yelling, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.  Let it be known that…” and the town’s citizens grumbling, “Oh no!  That’s the third crier I’ve heard today – is there no limit to the amount of news we are expected to listen to?”

There’s something about the term “information overload” that puts the cart before the horse.  It’s like “horseless carriage” rather than “automobile” – if you pick the wrong label, you might misunderstand the problem, and thus come up with the wrong solution (or at least, come up with a solution that generates all sorts of undesirable, unintended consequences!)  If you think of the problem as information overload you might look for a solution that cuts back on the information, and that would be a crime!

I don’t personally suffer from information overload.  I feel eternally fortunate that I have access to so much information – that I am washed in so many messages for so much of my day and evening.  But, what I do feel is a strong need to:

  1. Be better at finding potentially valuable information.  I’m finding an ever increasing array of new tools  – often Web 2.0 tools such as social bookmarking, RSS readers, tag and search, and content management – that really are helping me find useful information I might not otherwise come across.
  2. Have much better tools to sort and filter the information available.  Again, tools such as tag/search, social bookmarking, and RSS readers are a great help in sorting and filtering.
  3. Have much better ways to make sense of all the information.  There is always room for improvement here, but I find the better I can leverage technology to help with 1. and 2. above, the easier it is to make sense of the information I’m exposed to.  And even then, Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, social networks, and easy-to-use collaboration tools (e.g., mind mapping, project management) are helping enormously.

I think some of the so-called “information overload” is actually a “channels” problem – we often use the wrong channels for a given purpose.  Email, of course, is the most prone to abuse.  Part of this is a lack of accepted, shared protocols that would bring some sense and order to the email chaos.  Part of this is the old “hammer” problem – when all you have is a hammer, everything is treated as if it were a nail.  Clearly, tools such as Instant Messaging, collaboration hubs, and a better balance between “push” and “pull” communication methods can take the sting out of email.   At nGenera, my email traffic is down significantly since we began using a collaboration hub.

A more insidious problem that I believe is often masked under the “information overload” banner is poor work management practices.  In many IT organizations I see situations where layers of middle management have been eliminated over the last few years, but work processes have not been improved.  This is exacerbated by IT organizations often being the worst kind of “cobblers children” in that they are all but un-automated.  As a result, we see IT managers who spend much of their day sending and responding to email messages that are actually part of a dreadfully inefficient work-flow.  So, you have broken work-flow processes automated by email – a recipe for low productivity, low quality, and managers who don’t have the time to think, read, or learn. 

Let’s call a spade a spade – this is not “information overload” – it is poor management (at all levels) that has fostered poor processes and has created a vicious cycle leading to yet more emails, and ever-shrinking time to “sharpen the saw”, as the old adage goes.

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13 thoughts on “The Myth of Information Overload

  1. I think you’re definitely onto something. I just did a posting on August 4th called ”I’m a Conscientious Objector in the War on Interruptions” (http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/im-a-conscientious-objector-in-the-war-on-interruptions/).

    I love what you say about the dangers of misdiagnosing this. I had an exchange with one person who writes and speaks about how huge a problem information overload is, but lumps all sorts of inefficiencies like socializing, distractions, and a one-sided view of interruptions into the IO bucket. When I pointed out how much of that isn’t strictly an IO problem and there’s danger of overmedicating for this problem, his answer was effectively “So what? We all know the amount of IO is so high there’s no chance of cutting into good interruptions and information flows anyways”

    One spot we differ is that I do think information overload is a real issue that many (but not all) face. Even if you strip out the junk that gets incorrectly tossed in this bucket, like socializing and bad management practices and distractions, there is still a real thing called “information overload” left and there’s quite a bit of room left to optimize.

    Reply
  2. Hi Vaughan. A good friend and smart analyst (Josh Greenbaum) once penned a column for me in the 90s about (BPR) Business Process Re-engineering. He wrote that BPR should be renamed “Bad Practice Repair” with the insightful assertion that so much of what consultants were getting paid to do in that era was to fix dumb processes that were inefficient or unnecessary.

    I see the corollary here with Information Overload. It’s a greenfield of opportunity to help our clients use these new filtering and productivity tools. In many cases, we may not reinvent the corporation, but we can make corporate life a whole lot easier to manage and, even, enjoy! Now that sounds revolutionary to me. :-)

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  3. To Craig Roth’s response – thank you, and thanks for pointing me to your blog – very insightful, and one I will add to my reader. I must confess, however, that I was a little insincere in implying that information overload is not a problem – it clearly is, and has been for a very long time – though getting worse in some respects. But I stand by my assertion that coming at this as an “information overload” issue presumes some things about the problem that are misleading and potentially dangerous.

    Many years ago, when I was steeped in the Computer Aided Systems Engineering (CASE) universe, I used to repeat a quote by one of the gurus at the time (sorry, I forget the source – probably Ed Yourdon). He said, “If you think about the problem as programmer productivity, you’ve pre-judged the way the work ought to be done.” Think about widgets, SOA and enterprise mashups today. They are about “non-programming” rather than programming more productively. This is my point with the “information overload” problem and the danger of viewing it throug that lens.

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  4. To Susan Scrupski’s comment – hallelujah! And you reinforce my take on this. I know this sounds really trite, but “information overload is a problem to be managed” is, IMHO, the wrong way to come at this. Too much “victim” and too much putting the cart before the horse.

    You, on the other hand, look at the opportunity – in particular to use the tools of Web 2.0 to help remedy the sins of IT 1.0. And bless you, Susan for that!

    Reply
  5. Vaughan,
    I agree with your assertion that society has always felt they have been overwhelmed with information. Today the volume of information people are exposed to is dramatically greater than even a decade ago, largely due to mainstream use of productivity tools such as email, use of the Internet, and most recently weblogs.
    Along with this volume of information comes varying degrees of quality. Finding the nuggets of gold in the avalanche of information is the challenge- and luckily we have the Web2.0 tools to help with this. It is not hard for me to spend hours working through various sources of information, but I would much rather spend 10 minutes with a high quality information-rich source. Everything else is just “data overload.”
    – Russ

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  6. Hi Vaughan,
    Great post. Indeed, we are always going to be exposed to more and more information so what can be achieved by complaining about information overload? As you say, we cannot think about cutting down on information consumption. Rather we need more intelligent tools and practices that allow us rapid and accurate access to only the information that is relevant to us…and in the process enjoy information WEALTH.

    One of the technologies those certainly is underutilized in sorting out information is text summarization. When we read we may as well get the key points first to quickly decide if we need to spend more time digging through the text. I have been working on such a tool, Context Organizer, and from experience can say that summarization simplifies and clarifies information making it more usable.

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  7. I think a not-so-subtle complement is in order here: Vaughan, you are the greatest scanner of information I’ve ever met. You have a remarkable ability to get more out of 15 minutes of reading than anyone. This is true now and was true when I met you over 15 years ago.

    Unfortunately, most of us mere mortals take a little longer to get value out of the information that comes our way. I agree that having access to ever greater information is a blessing, but many of us have to learn the art of scanning and find the tools that fit our cognitive style for thinking (Henry, send me your Context Organizer soon!). This might be the curse of the engineer, taught from birth that the only way to comprehend something was to read it carefully from cover to cover.

    All that said, I really like your point that the phrase “Information Overload” implies a solution that is just plain wrong! The problem is not too much information. The problem is getting the most out of the information we have.

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  8. Hi Vaughan! Susan and I were just talking about this and how to handle that common IO complaint in an organization that hasn’t taken to the Web 2.0 world very well. Your post and commentators are a great reminder to me that even though IO is used as the complaint, it’s not always the only issue to be addressed. As always, thanks for such great food for thought.

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  9. So you can all let out the collective groan because the luddite has arrived at the 2.0 table and I am still confused. Here’s a different perspective: it seems to me that, to the extent information overload exists (and I agree with those who say it may not), it is made worse, not better, by some of the new tools available–they just pump more information at me rather than relevant information at me…and that’s just frustrating.

    Now I will be the first to admit, as a user, I tend to be on the clueless side…I struggle with new tools and become easily frustrated when technology does not behave like I expect it to.

    I like email. I am quick with it and it serves my purpose of gathering my information in one place. A lot of that has to do with having learned a very personal way to use that particular tool that works for me.

    I do agree there is a tool problem, and I think it stems from the non-integration of so many of the cool new 2.0 things that are out there. What I want is artificial intelligence (to supplement my dearth of the same) that learns what is relevant to me, finds information regardless of how and where it is stored, ranks it, categorizes it, consolidates it in one place, makes the headlines easy to read and re-categorize as I see fit…

    …and delivers it all to my Inbox

    Reply
  10. No collective (or even singular!) groan from me. I personally welcome the Luddites – I’m often accused of being one, and that’s OK. Not all that is new is worthwhile! Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I was not totally authentic in my post’s title – Information Overload is clearly not a myth. The term, as I posited, is, however, misleading.

    Having got that out of the way, I completely agree with your assertion that there’s a tool problem. I further agree that lack of integration is one issue. Another, however, is some of the tools just don’t work very well.

    I have found that SOME Web 2.0 tools really help. I love, for example, Google Reader and Delicious. These have helped me “pull” information I might be interested in, allowing me to ignore much of the garbage (or, at least, irrelevant) that “pump information at me.”

    I do believe your wish for the AI engine that feeds stuff to your email will probably be granted in the next 2-3 years. The downside of that, however, is you might miss out on the serendipitous discovery. I’ve also been playing with StumbleUpon, and have had some very pleasant surprises finding stuff I’d never have looked for.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: The Real Sin of Email « IT Organization Circa 2017

  12. I began reading your article wondering how you could call cognitive overload a myth. I think we have an issue of semantics.

    Cognitive overload is a scientific term associate with Cognitive Load Theory. CLT has proven that humans throughout the world cannot hold more than 5-9 new pieces of information in their conscious memory without overloading their conscious memory capabilities. This is cognitive overload.

    I think you are talking about something different.

    Reply
    • Matt, thanks for your comment. As you say, we have a semantics issue. I did not say cognitive overload was a myth – I said information overload was. Cognitive overload is a result – and is, as you point out, a proven theory. Information overload is a cause. My point was that if we are smart with techniques such as filtering – whether automatic via software, or inherent via the brain, we can avoid (or at least, minimize) information overload.

      As a terrible analogy, clearly getting drunk (the result) is very real, with proven (and mostly dangerous) consequences. On the other hand, drinking (the cause) is not inherently dangerous, and can be enjoyed without getting drunk.

      Reply

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