There’s No Such Thing as Information Overload

The size of your inbox or your RSS feed or your twitter stream might all argue otherwise, but there’s no such thing as information overload.

Or, at least, if there is, it’s not new. Check this out:

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.

That was Denis Diderot in “Encyclopedie”, back in 1755. 1755!

The problems that we have with information isn’t that there’s too much of it – there has always been too much. Rather, there are two related problems with information: how do we filter out information that doesn’t help us, and how do we find information that we need.

Jorge Luis Borges touches on this in his story The Library of Babel. You should go read it here since everyone should be reading more Borges. The story is short, but packed with ideas. The library has an infinite number of rooms, all filled with books. Each book is the same length, with randomly assembled letters. The Men of the Library spend their lives wandering the shelves, reading the books. Since the library is infinite, it must contain all books ever written (and all that will be written!), but since the library is infinite, the odds of coming across even one sentence that makes sense are exceedingly small.

It is useless to observe that the best volume of the many hexagons under my administration is entitled The Combed Thunderclap and another The Plaster Cramp and another Axaxaxas mlö. These phrases, at first glance incoherent, can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical or allegorical manner; such a justification is verbal and, ex hypothesi, already figures in the Library. I cannot combine some characters

dhcmrlchtdj

which the divine Library has not foreseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god. To speak is to fall into tautology. This wordy and useless epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five shelves of one of the innumerable hexagons — and its refutation as well. (An n number of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and these seven words which define it have another value. You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?)

What do you do when you are faced with all of the information in the world? To make any sense of it, you have to find the information that is useful to you. So we filter.

As Borges suggests, each piece of information means something to someone, even if it’s gibberish to us. We need to knock out the stuff that’s gibberish. So we find ways to ignore information, by saying things like “Twitter is just 100 million people talking about what they ate for lunch, so why would I waste my time with that?” I do this by ignoring TV (unless I can find a hockey game on). Everyone makes choices about what they should be paying attention to.

The key to dealing with information is to be conscious of the choices that you’re making, and to develop a strategy or a set of routines for handling it. Howard Rheingold has created an outstanding set of resources for his classes on Mind Amplifiers and Infotention. Start with those to develop a filtering strategy.

We’ve always had too much information to handle, and we’ve always dealt with it by developing routines. The real difference now is not that there’s so much more information, it’s that we don’t have good routines to go with the new channels that the information is taking to get to us.

The danger in thinking that we have too much information is that we’ll start missing out on innovation opportunities. After all, the creative part of innovation is about making novel connections between ideas. So we actually have to seek out information that is a bit out of the ordinary (see the end of this post for some techniques for doing this).

If you think that the problem is information overload, then this will seem completely counterintuitive. That’s why it’s a dangerous idea – if you take it seriously, it makes it much harder to innovate.

That’s why I say that there’s no such thing as information overload. Even if that’s not strictly true, we’re better off acting as though that’s the case.

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.

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9 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as Information Overload

  1. Hi Tim,
    Interesting argument and enjoyed the read.

    I think whether there is information overload or not would depend on how one is defining ‘overload’. To me the key is to ensure you anchor your definition for it to mean what it is supposed to mean.

    In this regard, I would agree with you that folks who look at the size of their databases or the amount of information “out there” and say there is an information overload is missing the point. Overload is in the context of our cognitive limitations. We only have so much attention capability and as we spread our attention to increasing units or breadth of information, sometimes we have the issues of scarcity of attention (the flip side of overload).

    The important thing is to use imaginative thinking and technology to get to the right information rather than as you said fliter out information and then work with a subset (which is suboptimal).

    Thanks for the read.

    Best,
    Ned

  2. Thanks for the comment Ned. I agree that there are issues of attention scarcity. That may be increasing now, but I think it’s always been an issue. And the fact of the matter is that we still allocate a lot of attention to things that don’t really merit our time (or at least I do!). I think it’s really important to understand and feel that we’re making choices here.

  3. This is the good old Clay Shirky Filter Failure meme… and while it’s good as far as it addresses the “number of books out there” aspect of IO, it ignores IMHO the aspect that’s driving peopel crazy – overload of information you HAVE to process (email, primarily). My take on this controversy is at http://bit.ly/T4D2H0 .

    • Thanks for the comment Nathan. The first half is the standard Shirky argument, but the second contains what I think is a really important point. If we look at information as something that we have to cope with, or process, we miss out on the main value it brings – which is making novel new connections. Embracing information, figuring out a way to interact with it that seeks out boundaries between areas of interest, and connecting ideas in new ways is essential. And we think only about information overload, none of that happens.