Information overload (also known as infobesity or infoxication) is a term used to describe the difficulty of understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue.
Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.
A quite early example of the term “information overload” can be found in an article by Jacob Jacoby, Donald Speller and Carol Kohn Berning, who conducted an experiment on 192 housewives which was said to confirm the hypothesis that more information about brands would lead to poorer decision making.
Long before that, the concept was introduced by Diderot, although it was not by the term “information overload”:
“As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes. — Denis Diderot, “Encyclopédie” (1755).
Throughout history there have been complaints about information overload particularly during the Renaissance and the industrial revolution periods. However, the dawn of the information age and access to powerful and low cost data collection on automated basis has brought us more information than at any other point in history.
Managing information in daily life is no longer restricted to a wealthy elite but is a problem which faces nearly everyone. Social media, e-mail, websites, mobile apps, etc. all spill data into our lives daily.
“Getting information from the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant”
The Causes of Information Overload Today
There are, of course, nearly as many causes of information overload as there are bits of information available to us. However, the most common reasons behind modern information overload include:
– Huge volumes of new information being constantly created
– Pressure to create and compete in information provision – leading to a quantity over quality effect in many industries
– The simplicity of creating, duplicating and sharing of information online
– The exponential increase in channels to receive information by; radio, television, print media, websites, e-mail, mobile telephony, RSS feeds, etc.
– The increasing weight of historical data available to us
– High volumes of conflicting, contradictory and plain old inaccurate information
– No simple methodologies for quickly processing, comparing and evaluating information sources
– A lack of clear structure in groups of information and poor clues as to the relationships between those groups
Information Overload – the Problem for Individuals
Information overload, of course, dates back to Gutenberg. The invention of movable type led to a proliferation of printed matter that quickly exceeded what a single human mind could absorb in a lifetime. Later technologies—from carbon paper to the photocopier—madereplicating existing information even easier. And once information was digitized, documents could be copied in limitless numbers at virtually no cost.
Digitizing content also removed barriers to another activity first made possible by the printing press:publishing new information. No longer restricted by centuries-old production and distribution costs, anyone can be a publisher today. (The internet, with its far-reaching and free distribution channels, wasn’t the only enabler. Consider how the word processor eliminated the need for a steno-pad–equipped secretary, with ready access to typewriter and Wite-Out, who could help an executive bring a memo into the world.) In fact, a lot of new information—personalized purchase recommendations from Amazon, for instance—is “published” and distributed without any active human input.
With the information floodgates open, content rushes at us in countless formats: Text messages and Twitter tweets on our cell phones. Facebook friend alerts and voice mail on our BlackBerrys. Instant messages and direct-marketing sales pitches (no longer limited by the cost of postage) on our desktop computers. Not to mention the ultimate killer app: e-mail. (I, for one, have nearly expired during futile efforts to keep up with it.)
Meanwhile, we’re drawn toward information that in the past didn’t exist or that we didn’t have access to but, now that it’s available, we dare not ignore. Online research reports and industry data. Blogs written by colleagues or by executives at rival companies. Wikis and discussion forums on topics we’re following. The corporate intranet. The latest banal musings of friends in our social networks.
So it’s a lot of stuff—but what precisely is the problem? Well, the chorus of whining (punctuated by my own discordant moans) apparently has some validity. Researchers say that the stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives—combined with the personal and social expectation that, say, you will answer every e-mail message—can deplete and demoralize you. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and expert on attention-deficit disorders, argues that the modern workplace induces what he calls “attention deficit trait,” with characteristics similar to those of the genetically based disorder. Author Linda Stone, who coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe the mental state of today’s knowledge workers, says she’s now noticing—get this—“e-mail apnea”: the unconscious suspension of regular and steady breathing when people tackle their e-mail.
There are even claims that the relentless cascade of information lowers people’s intelligence. A few years ago, a study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard reported that the IQ scores of knowledge workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls fell from their normal level by an average of 10 points—twice the decline recorded for those smoking marijuana, several commentators wryly noted.
Of course, not everyone feels overwhelmed by the torrent of information. Some are stimulated by it. But that raises the specter of…[cue scary music]…information addiction. According to a 2008 AOL survey of 4,000 e-mail users in the United States, 46% were “hooked” on e-mail. Nearly 60% of everyone surveyed checked e-mail in the bathroom, 15% checked it in church, and 11% had hidden the fact that they were checking it from a spouse or other family member.
The tendency of always-available information to blur the boundaries between work and home can affect our personal lives in unexpected ways.