January 08, 2005

Information Overload

I've been thinking about the idea of this. Information overload. I have a friend who is exasperated by the amount of information he comes across, that he wants to apprehend and think about deeply as well as respond to in some meaningful way. And how, as he expresses this, I think back to when I felt more stressed by my own inability to think deeply about every piece of information I came across.

I think there is some parallel to when I got a cell phone.. and for years, felt all sorts of emotions about responding to calls, as if I had to pick up every one, and not give out the number too much to regulate this, and how I wanted to not call others too much, because they felt the same stress. And then at some point 3 or 4 years ago, I started giving the number to everyone, and stopped using my home very much. When I would get a call, I decided whether to answer or not, instead of the phone pushing me. And the change in perception, which was instantly there upon thinking I no longer had to respond, and instead had control, caused immediate relief. I've never felt that pressure or anxiety again.

With information, ideas, expressions online, networks of activity and the desire to watch the behavior, events, second order information tools, and my desire to write myself, in this and other blogs and in papers, I have felt that same pressure, to keep running ahead of the production of information, to keep apprehending it and then processing it, thinking about the deeper meaning, and yet there is so much, I cannot.

One thing I observe is how people who are younger seem to take in smaller, more granular bits of information, as though they are rocks skimming across a lake, touching down briefly for a bit of information before the next lift off to the next dip for something.... Kind of like a statistical survey where a study of 30 random items is conducted from a much larger corpus of data.

In a survey of 30, because of statistics theory and study, it is assumed that samples of that size give a decent portrayal of what the larger group is doing, even if that group is in the thousands. So those I see who are more immersed in the internet, tending to be younger though they all are not, who are breathing it, with far less anxiety than those who tend to be older, seem to do so by just skimming and surveying. And the difference, I wonder, might be because those older were educated by parents and schools situated in the analog metaphor, where a classic book, Lord Jim by Conrad (one of my favorites), is read over and over, in a search for multiple layers of meaning and experience. Because of this training, my instinct initially was to read the flood of digital information as closely and deeply, looking for and ascribing meaning, even if not at quite the same level as when reading a classic novel. But those who are younger, and have grown up with the flood of the digital, may be less educated toward that kind of apprehension and desire to ascribe the same kind of meaning and depth to everything, maybe because while their parents and teachers reside in analog frameworks of their own, those younger are balancing that kind of apprehension with their experience online of granular, digital bits that are skimmed. I don't know, but that feels like what is happening.

So a while ago, when I first started seeing this difference, I decided to skim, like a skipping rock, certain kinds of information and data, because I found that living with less anxiety actually allowed me to take in more and understand it more deeply. I am not sure if this is all real, or just something on the way to understanding better what really is happening as I take in this flood of data and watch people interacting with it. But I do know that I'm much happier filtering more information I want to understand by type, as I take things in, and doing surveys in the flood of digital information, instead of feeling obligated to consume every bit before I can understand something. And yet, for other kinds of information, like Conrad, or the Bruno Latour I was reading yesterday, I want the time for a depth of thought to think more about it.

I'm curious about how others perceive this and would really like to know what your experience is, and how you perceive other's interaction with the flood of information. Please let me know in comments or your own posts somewhere. Thanks!

Posted by Mary Hodder at January 8, 2005 08:34 AM | TrackBack

I think you're right that many people, especially younger people, tend to skip over/around information, rather than reflect on it. I don't know if it's because they're just trained that way (as you say), or if it's some other reason.

Clearly, we all have access to more information than we can properly consume. The best way to respond, however, isn't, IMHO, to sample what's already there, but to be more selective in what gets there in the first place.

I'm not advocating completely closed filters, because we need serendipity to discover new concepts and ideas. But a judicious selection of sources is far better, I think, than a more-or-less random sampling of unselected content.

Posted by: Terry Steichen at January 8, 2005 12:00 PM

I've not not what I'd call information-overload, per se, and yes I do skim, but what I've had is sort of scope anxiety. Such like:

I can reply to a specific thread about a certain aspect of some vast project, and then the next second in my aggregator read a lengthly debate about the Tsunami, and bloggers impact. Some bloggers I read often, even.

So, going from insanely small and specific, to just as crazy large and reaching information... can be weird to switch modes.

Nice post! See ya at VloggerCon maybe!

Posted by: th0m at January 8, 2005 02:40 PM

I've been struggling with this question of information overload processing myself. I've been thinking about it as an information food pyramid. At the base level of the pyramid is a huge amount of raw data that is somewhat overwhelming. There are scholars and journalists who sift through that mass and extract interesting stories and useful information. Then there are second and third-order information consumers who take the results of those first-order consumers and process it themselves. I've been calling them "information carnivores".

In most cases, it's an advantage to live higher up the pyramid. It's more efficient and takes less time to keep up with the information flood. And, as you note, you can always drill back down to the primary data when you want to reflect more deeply. The disadvantage of looking only at processed information is that you have to worry about the biases and inaccuracies that may have accumulated in the processing stage, similar to a carnivore being threatened by toxins accumulating at each stage of the food chain.

Anyway, this analogy helped me to clarify how I wanted to balance my information browsing habits, so I thought I'd throw it in the mix.

Posted by: Eric Nehrlich at January 8, 2005 03:34 PM

You are very right. I find myself experiencing this overload at times. I'd always considered myself to be pretty informed of new technologies... things of that sort. I think now, especially with the power of social networking through blogging, information spreads super fast. There are so many new things I haven't even looked into. Everybody blogs everything.

I really like your analogy. I think it sums up my browsing habits - skimming sites like slashdot for news snippets and only occasionaly reading the originating article for more meaning.

Posted by: redredkroovy at January 9, 2005 12:50 AM

I think it has to do a lot with our own personal interests... or gain rather. I am in the "younger generation" group you were refering to. I really haven't thought about this until now. But I have a couple points to bring up. For one thing in high school (which in almost every way did not prepare me for college)we are given, for the most part, busy work. Which is quite simply... you skim through the pages to find the paraphrasing or term you're looking for then, boom! You have your answer and go on to the next question. Usually there was no need to read in context to get an answer. That, in part, trained us to just skim until we found what we wanted. In turn while skimming we overlook topics and words that we store in our unconsious minds. That, I think, is a benifit because although you didn't actually read into the topic you do know it's there so when you need to revert back to that information you have more of an idea what it is or where to find it at least.

Posted by: hlablue at January 10, 2005 12:08 PM

It's interesting how closely your (Mary H.) views about digital life match up and contrast with how different people in my life react to their new worlds.

My mom (a ridiculously active and liberal 51 yr. old, but 51 nonetheless) still has significant issues with being deathly scared not to read every word that passes in front of her. The first ten times she was on Yahoo.com she read every word of their home page (a five minute process) before even checking her email. I tried to tell her that 99.999% of things on the internet are useless information, but she got a bit angry at this saying (paraphrase) "Why are these people wasting millions of people's time then writing all of this?"

One of my best friend's mother's asked me to explain "spin" to her. She had no idea that the news shows (Fox for example) are selectively reporting "stories."

I'm personally stuck right on the edge of generation X and Y/millenials (whatever name you like). My older friends/coworkers generally act like versions of my mom; they are offended if they are presented with information that isn't 100% important enough to be read and all but memorized. My younger friends are offended when presented with something that will take hours to take in because it means they will miss 1,000 small things from other sources that will add up to being much more important than the single block of info they were burdened with.

I personally find a great deal of benefit from both the "Lord Jim" approach and the constant stream approach, but I only use "Lord Jim" when i'm sure it will be exponentially worth the effort. Of course, I read extremely fast (1,000 words-per-minute is slow for me) so it's a bit less stressful for me to take two hours out of my day and read the entire book on a subject, but I still find that I have to change gears depending on the person with whom I'm speaking at the time.

The biggest gap in communication between people I've run into though (but can't elaborate on at the moment b/c it's worth 3 books of ink) is the dichotomy between people who understand and utilize statistics in their everyday lives and those who think it's "just guessing." I make a living making money off people who don't understand statistics (i'm in online marketing) and generally even my 15 year old little brother has a better conception of statistical ideas than most of the people who have run mildly successful small businesses who are our clients.

Posted by: Cole at January 10, 2005 12:13 PM

I like to select my topics of interest and find they change as the seasons change. Sure, there are roots, but the wings of finding new interests prevent my feeling overloaded. My choice has been learning to find something again, or for the first time, rather than storing in my brain.

I practice not watching TV unless I understand exactly why I watch (learning, entertainment, spacing out or an obligatory family/social event). Likewise, with the car radio - it is never on unless I know why I have it on (and not just for background noise).

Discipline with these two media allows me to skim headlines through my computer and select the text or multimedia depth that I choose. The breadth is wide and the depth is my choice. I am quick to delete frivolous or unused RSS feeds, Google alerts seldom used, and duplicitous sources.

As students talk about information overload, I ask them to distinguish among learning to use new tools, trying to memorize material, and organizing material for retrieval. We generally learn that having a superior command of retrieval techniques eliminates the overload feeling.

Posted by: Joe at February 5, 2005 03:13 PM

Information overload is the major anxiety-producer of the information age. That's our age, no matter what our age. Young people skim the informaton surface because they're still mostly engaged with themselves, whereas the older we grow, the more we realize there are other people inhabiting this earth and it might be illuminating to find out what they think. In 30 years, our young people will be gorging themselves on their grandparents' and grandchildren's blogs and wondering how they could have missed the events that took place during in these very times.

Posted by: Sylvia Paull at February 9, 2005 07:58 AM