Information Overload

Too Much Information

Are we really at the point of total information overload?

How we got here

Let’s stand back and view the expansion and dissemination of information over the past 30 years since the advent of mass user networking. Even before the internet and hypertext protocol were developed  as a means to share information more easily the groundwork was laid for the ever expanding mess of data that we have available today. It crept out of universities in the 70s through home consumer networks and Listservs in the 80s and exploded with the birth of the web in the 90s.

As the number of websites grew and came to be indexed, (as we all probably know), search was developed and marketed as a means to find the information we wished to consume. Now the information was out there and we just needed to know how to look for it. This passive means of data interaction works great assuming you know how to look for what it is that you want to know but what if you don’t know what it is you want to know? You know? That’s when the technology of information consumption made it’s next leap …

Stop! I think it’s happening again

Along comes RSS that offers to feed us information without us needing to lift a finger to search for it. Sure you initially have some limited activity in setting up an RSS reader but with tools like Google Reader and Google Alert we no longer need to hunt for information, we just need to sit back and consume it.

We can think of this process like the chocolate production line episode from I Love Lucy. If you’ve never seen the episode or the show for that matter, GOOGLE IT. If you’ve honestly never seen it Lucy and Ethel have no issues at first with the trickle of candy (information) but it quickly overwhelmed them and they have a hard time reacting to it, comedy ensues, and the candy speeds up even more before the scene ends.

As a more personal example in my Google Reader I subscribe to more than 70 RSS feeds. Some of those are aggregators so the number of posts I get each day is often over 150. I have them categorized by subject but at times it still is overload and my retention is probably very low.

In fact I decided to write this post only after seeing this in my Google Reader:

From: http://thxthxthx.com/?p=752

That’s from the website: thxthxthx.com which shows a thank you note everyday. Now, this isn’t off of one of the 70+ RSS Feeds I get. It was from another section in my Google Reader where I can see things that my friends who also use Google Reader want to share but it makes a great and very true statement. By the time I get done reading all the new posts in Google Reader there are more of them there.

The Answer

There are already books published about the effects of this kind of information overload on our brains. It’s frightening to me at least that there are serious physiological changes that have been observed and documented that can scientifically be traced to our changing means of information consumption.

So how do we combat these changes?

The truth is that there is little chance that people are going to slow their consumption. We’re not going to go back to 3 TV channels and no internet. True there are those that limit their exposure but does this actually have a positive effect or do they just read and consume things at an even higher rate because they know they have a time limit? Can their activities be equated to the use of filters on cigarettes? A means that only purports to have a health benefit when in actuality the smokers just suck harder.

I can come up with two ideas on my own though I can’t actually develop either myself.

One idea is to create a more targeted flow of information. RSS is great but when we add key-wording in no longer am I getting each post from a photo-blog that often features mediocre nudes, lackluster portraits, boring “art photography”, and amazing architectural photos. If I add in the keyword restriction or only subscribe to posts that are from the architectural category then I get to see what I want and the signal comes through the noise a little stronger. I also see a lower number of total unread posts in my Google Reader which doesn’t make me think – crap, I can’t look at all of these, I’ve only got 20 minutes before I need to leave.

So idea one is to add a new layer to RSS would be beneficial and really already exists. It’s category based RSS and some sites do offer it – it just needs to be more widespread.

The second idea is to stop beaming bright light directly into our eyes.

These new tablets and iPads and things are really cool but when are the even cooler thin, readable in all light, vivid color, electronic ink devices going to get here? Right now we are bombarding our eyes with the lights from our computers and that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) but we don’t fight or flee, we just keep reading or watching.

Maybe someday soon there will be a device that works more like a newspaper with full color vibrant photos, that is small, flexible, and doesn’t require back-lighting to be read. They’re working on this stuff but when will it get here?

I know that the Kindle has an e-ink display but it doesn’t have color and that’s going to keep it from being able to replace newspapers and magazines. Not so much because they include images in stories but because they do so in ads. For them (so far) it’s the web, these tablets, or nothing.

So really I don’t have all the answers and those I have I can’t implement alone but I think we need to start to critically think about ways to adapt the consumption to the consumer because they’re not going to stop consuming or even slow down until they are forced to. I know I’m not.

Do you have any ideas how to do that? If so leave them in the comments or better yet start a tech company that changes the world.

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