Information Overload?

How do we cope with the barrage of information that we face each day? Yesterday I suggested that the information glut has been with us for a long time. Stowe Boyd ended up talking about the same issue yesterday in a terrific post called The False Question of Attention Economics.

His contention is the same as mine – that we have always had too much data to contend with, and so arguments that claim that we currently face numerous problems because of an attention deficit are starting from a false premise. You should read the whole post, but here is one key section of Boyd’s argument:

In the final analysis, I am saying there is no ‘answer’ to those that say we are overloaded, that we are being driven mad by or enslaved to the tools we are experimenting with, or that there is some attention calculus that trumps all other value systems.

Instead, I suggest we continue experimenting, cooking up new ways to represent and experience the flow of information, our friends’ thoughts, recommendations, and whims, and the mess that is boiling in the huge cauldron we call the web.

I suggest we just haven’t experimented enough with ways to render information in more usable ways, and once we start to do so, it will like take 10 years (the 10,000 hour rule again) before anyone demonstrates real mastery of the techniques involved.

There is no “answer” since they are asking a false question, one that hides preconceived premises and biases. Starting out with the assumption that we have moved past our abilities to cope with the stream of information, and therefore something has to give, is a bias.

I think that this is correct. However, the issue of attention economics is still valid – the question of how we allocate limited attention to overwhelming amounts of available data is critical. And as Tom Peters suggests, there are significant advantages that accrue to those that are able to intelligently process larger amounts of data:

The biggest change that we face now is not the fact that there is too much information that we have to process, but rather the tools that are available to help us – we are much more able now to outsource aspects of data collection and processing. And fortunately, there are some very smart people thinking about how we can best take advantage of the available tools. In addition to the blog by Boyd, those of Harold Jarche and Venessa Miemis have many good ideas on this topic. So does George Siemens – who teaches a class which involves intentionally overwhelming the students with data. Their success in the course is then dependent upon how well they are able to build and use a data-gathering and -processing network.

I like the prescription to win by outreading the competition. But I’m still working out the best way to do it. If anyone has any further suggestions or tips, I’d love to hear them.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

18 thoughts on “Information Overload?

  1. I’ve been developing my own very strong feelings about this topic and agree that the core issue is being framed incorrectly. There is a line in the film Amadeus in which one of the court advisors comments something like this, “Herr Mozart, you simply have too many notes! The human mind simply cannot comprehend them all.” To which a flabbergasted Mozart replies, “Which would you have me take out.”
    In workshop after workshop I’ve expected participants to opt for less information, less data, and time and again, they choose or ask for more.
    I don’t think I can comment as thoroughly as I would want (I know there’s a blog entry here somewhere), but the issue as I see it is outmoded or antiquated filters or sense of context that cannot contain new flows of information. Complex (read: data rich) situations provide the opportunity (read: force) the ability to recognize, discern, or perhaps even create, new patterns for making sense of what’s going on.
    Beethoven–much less Stravinsky or God-forbid, Penderecki–requires a different “ear” and detachment from earlier frames of reference (read: pattern expectations) like Gregorian Chant.
    I’m going out on a limb to observe that the particularly Western inclination toward atomizing data observation and mechanical, brick-by-brick mental constructions are underlying obstacles, that is, the “filters” getting clogged.
    This is an age of social artistry, a time for the social artist, who provides ways of not only seeing but contributing to the richness, complexity, and diversity of human experience. And I think this also offers a kernel of opportunity for captains of industry.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful & thought-provoking comment Ken. I don’t have much to add to it – I agree with most of what you say, and look forward to a blog post on the topic!

  3. Its almost as if we have lost sight of the objective ie we need to make a decision and execute rather than collect information. If you look at the assembly of information to support this objective then less is more in the sense that too much information clouds the core issues and obscures the real issues.

  4. I wonder if the compulsory need to acquire new information (not unlike the compulsory need to consume) is not a new strategy the mind uses to compensate for an ancient, deep-set form of insecurity–the gnawing notion that something in us is missing, lacking–which finds its roots in the unstable, insatiable ego.

  5. Picking up on what Ken and Andy have highlighted, does this mean that we might witness the end of reductionism as a viable analysis strategy? And, by extension, does this imply that a culture which isn’t root in the reductionist orthodoxies of the West has the potential to realize a step-change in performance?

  6. Thanks for the comment Peter, and thanks also for the mention on your blog. Your second premise certainly follows from your first – so assessing the first statement is the key, I think. I’m in a business school, where we don’t spare too much thought for philosophy of science type questions – but my personal experience has been that I’ve found a limit to the use of reductionism. That’s why I use a complex adaptive system analytic framework and network analysis for empirical work. I’m not sure if it’s generally true or not that this is the best way to go. I do think that there are some questions that are still well-suited to reductionist inquiry. Figuring out the boundary conditions for these would be worthwhile though…

  7. Tim and John,

    Thomas Petersen has opened the door to an intriguing new way to deal with information overload in “Slaves of the Feed: This is not the real-time we’ve been waiting for”

    His post is well worth a look at .

    Petersen’s idea – and the ensuing conversation – suggest we can outline desired futures and toss them into the feed, and reel back in coherent narratives with practical paths for fulfilling the ends we are seeking.


    Mark Frazier
    @openworld @buildership (twitter)

  8. Thanks for that Mark. I remember you linking to that post when it was first published, but it slipped my mind as I was writing this one. It’s certainly an optimistic vision – I hope that you’re right!

  9. Tim,

    On the path that Thomas outlined of throwing seeds of imagined idealities into the feed, there may be several ways to help practical narratives sprout from the seeds.

    One would be to use prediction markets. In these markets, various narratives that emerge from the information flow on how to reach a desired state – perhaps a desired health outcome – can attract wagers on their rates of acceptance and likely success in achieving a desired result.

    A second would be to introduce actual rewards – as well as reputation benefits – for co-creators of (successful) narratives on achieving results, as well as by those who bet on these in the prediction markets. The Young Foundation in the UK has recently launched Social Impact Bonds that are an example of how such actual rewards can operate.

    Adding prediction markets and actual rewards to the information flow be a catalyst for more useful narratives to form and emerge from the seeds of imagined idealities.


    Mark Frazier
    @openworld @buildership

  10. ass-backwards life-understanding, this whole subject …

    boyd is right, no problem at all … but he doesn’t know why …

    and “attention economics” is just a joke buzzword …

    yogis know the answer, but since no grant money or keynote speeches will accrue to them, and the desire for western experts to attain both is near-unstoppable, i will give the shorthand version, you can dismiss it at you leisure, or instantly …

    pay attention to the self only … then all that is needed comes at the right time, nothing is ever lost, no overload is possible …


  11. There is not information overload…if information stopped coming than we would really have a problem.

    The key in dealing with volumes of data is to be able to select smartly what in fact is relevant.

    Automatic Summarization identifies critical information in the source text.

    By pointing to the most important content, the summarization technology allows the readers to make quick determinations if the information is of value.

    Much of the research into information management concludes that less is invariably better – just like the back-of-the-book index; referencing only the ctitical content.

  12. Thanks for the comment Henry. I agree that there isn’t information overload in any meaningful sense – filtering has always been an important part of our toolkit.

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