As I See It: Operating on Overload
May 21, 2007 Victor Rozek
If the name Conrad Gesner is unfamiliar, it’s probably because you’re either not a librarian or weren’t around in the 16th century when Gesner walked the earth. Born in Switzerland, Gesner was a naturalist and a scholar, but he is known to librarians as the creator of the bibliography. And what an ambitious accomplishment it was! Known as the Bibliotheca universalis, it was written in three languages–Greek, Latin, and Hebrew–and it listed all of the writers who had ever lived and the titles of all their works.
No surprise then that Gesner was also among the first to have gone on record as suffering from information overload, a term coined by Alvin Toffler 425 years later in his book Future Shock. Jonathan Spira, writing for Collaboration Loop, recounts that in 1545 Gesner “warned of the ‘confusing and harmful abundance of books’ and suggested reading strategies for coping with information overload.”
What’s remarkable is how accurately Gesner diagnosed the symptoms. “Confusion” and “harm” precisely describe the consequences of being buried in too much information for too long a time. Sufferers report symptoms which include poor decision making, brain freeze, anxiety, impaired judgment, trouble with memorization, difficulty with recall, and a shrinking attention span. A noteworthy number also complain of health effects. Cyberneticist Francis Heylighen reports that “a world-wide survey found two thirds of managers suffer from increased tension and one third from ill-health because of information overload.” And if it’s true for managers, it’s true for employees as well; the symptoms are certainly universal enough. And these effects, says Heylighen, “merely add to the stress caused by the need to constantly adapt to a changing situation,” which for IT professionals is a way of life.
The inability to react to rapidly changing situations is precisely why the Israeli Air Force turned down the volume of electronic information bombarding its pilots. A number of years ago, 60 Minutes did a piece on how the Israelis were using the very expensive, state-of-the-art, bursting with whiz-bang technology fighter jets that we were selling them. They found some surprises. First, the Israelis made a number of low-tech modifications to the planes, like installing a rear view mirror, which allowed the pilot to locate a trailing enemy plane without the distraction of turning his head. So enamored were the Israelis of their alterations that the interviewer finally pointed to the constellation of gadgets, gizmos, dials, and screens stuffed into the cockpit and asked what use Israeli pilots made of all the new technology. “Oh,” said the Israeli somewhat sheepishly, “we turn all that stuff off, its too distracting.”
As advanced and theoretically useful as the technology was, in aggregate it produced more information than any pilot operating under combat conditions could possibly assimilate. Nor could they easily determine what was vital in any given moment and what was extraneous. The time spent figuring it out could result in an instant of inattention that might cost the pilot his life. The Israelis preferred to put their faith in the judgment of their people rather than in the incessant chatter produced by the plane’s numerous electronic systems.
But whether your workspace is a cockpit or a cubicle, whether you manage a book library or a data library, chances are the rising tide of information has not escaped your notice. Nor, perhaps, that employers, unlike the Israeli Air Force, are putting more of their trust in information and less of their trust in you.
The availability of inexpensive and plentiful storage has subordinated individual judgment to the weight of information, turned data bases into data warehouses, and data retrieval into data mining–a term which quite accurately suggests that you have to dig through a lot of useless dirt before finding the nuggets. And because the cost of electronic transmission is low, information is often sent in a scatter-gun fashion to people that the sender hopes will be interested, but who do not actually require it. Messages bombard us from a dozen sources–e-mail, text messages, instant messages, personal digital assistants, cell phones, iPods and more–with no way to determine what is urgent and important and what is trivial.
And what does all of this messaging cost employers? To find out, Stever Robbins suggests taking your annual salary and dividing it by 120,000, which will give you an approximate per minute cost. Then track the amount of time you spend managing your various messaging sources. For extra bonus points, he says, track it for the whole company.
And none of this includes the informational assault of radio and television–the feedback-free, one-way medium–that Americans watch an average of 4 hours and 35 minutes each day, with its 150 channels, most of which are useless.
During a conference on information overload hosted by Microsoft, Bill Gates predictably said that the answer lies in the proper use of software tools able to present information in useful and shareable formats, and the development of intelligent filters that work with multiple knowledge sources to identify relevant data. But that presents another challenge. Let’s call it Software Functionality Overload. The way to sell new generations of gadgets or software is to advertise expanded functionality regardless of whether anyone needs it or will ever actually use it. Cell phones now do everything from picture taking to tracking your position on the planet, but studies show that most people only use them to make phone calls. Imagine that. Likewise, my word processing program is almost a stand-alone publishing house, with functions I haven’t even discovered yet. But all I do is write articles and whenever I venture beyond the basics I find that the Help utility is nearly useless. It hardly matters that there are six ways to do every little thing if the user doesn’t know what each little thing is. And as for manuals, I took an intense dislike to them ever since the days that IBM delivered them by the pallet load–far too much information, most of which I never needed but was often forced to search through with differing degrees of frustration.
Could our increased tolerance for useless data be having an actual physiological effect on our ability to think? An article in New Scientist claimed that “exposing individuals to an information overloaded environment resulted in lower IQ scores than exposing individuals to marijuana.” (By “exposing” I suspect they meant more than waving the baggie in front of the test subject). That might explain why, after plowing through the spam that comprises 98 percent of the e-mail I receive through my IT Jungle Webmail account, I feel like the synapses in my brain have been scraped with sandpaper.
In writer Linda Stone’s memorable words, the result of having to deal with all this indiscriminate information is that everything gets “continuous partial attention.” We seldom pause long enough to grant our full focus to the task or person at hand. Stone believes “attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. We can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries, or alter it with pharmaceuticals. In the end, though, we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool.”
Of the three attention options Stone offers, the favorite form of consciousness for many Americans is “altered.” Which is how you can always tell when a problem is about to find a pharmaceutical remedy: someone tags it with the word “syndrome.” Indeed, psychologist David Lewis, who analyzed the findings of the global survey referenced by Heylighen, proposed the term “Information Fatigue Syndrome.” There you have it fellow sufferers, it’s official.
Alas, as yet there are no meds, no swallowable solutions for information overload. There is, however, no shortage of clever names describing the condition. Data smog, infomania, and infoglut are among my favorites. I don’t know about you, but to me infoglut definitely sounds painful and like something that should be treated.
While we’re waiting for the quick fix, however, let’s not overlook the easy one. The best medicine for combating information overload is to reclaim our time. Without adequate time, any ability we possess will be diminished. Can it be that the time required to manage information is inversely proportional to its usefulness? The Israeli Air Force thought so, and they turned the gadgets off. The next time you initiate a search on the Internet consider that Yahoo and Google alone are indexing an estimated 10 billion documents. Even after 450 years, that’s enough to give bibliographer Conrad Gesner a blinding headache.