Information Overload

In an ironic coincidence that is completely beyond my ability to make sense of right now, this morning’s web browsing turned up about 50 web pages that I HAD to read (equivalent to about 150 printed pages), and several of them talked about the overload of information today.

Again, it’s Slashdot’s fault for getting me started. But this is something I’ve been interested in for a while, and even I contribute enough to the problem that my last rant about it just got pushed off the front page by this entry.

So in another twist above my comprehension level, it seems I will have to consume more information in order to learn how to consume less information. A few authors have tackled this problem, including David Shenk and James Gleick.

Shenk writes about ways to put technology and information (what he calls “technorealism”) in perspective and manage the use of them as tools, not tasks. Among his most poignant insights: “For all of the hype about new “interactive” technology, the most important interactions going on are between our ears.” (from his article in CIO Magazine) He offers, along with many other digerati and techno-luminaries (the usual suspects: Rheingold, Kapor, Steven Johnson, Simson Garfinkel), a credo and resource for those who wish to control their use of technology at

I first ran into Gleick when looking at his book Genius, about Richard Feynman. In Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, he widens the scope of acceleration to subjects like transportation and food, and ties it together using the metaphor of time (the wristwatch, the chronograph, the atomic clock). If I ever have time between doing all the other things I do to save time, I just might read his book, too.

At first glance this seems like a neverending cycle that demands absolute adherence or complete denial. And now, with the idea that I can save myself from information by consuming more information, it’s more confusing than ever. But I think a few things are true:

1) Information is not the enemy. As I wrote in an email correspondence about the dangers of too many people knowing about an event during the early days of the ISIS project: “Certainly there exist events of all sizes and for all different intended audiences, and difficulties arise when a different audience attends. However, I would think that more often the solution to these growing pains lies in more information existing, on all sides, than in less.” I wouldn’t know how to deal with the information problem without information, and an occasional problem that arises with a choice out of it I view as better than fewer problems but no choices at all.

2) There IS an enemy. We are on a path that is unsustainable. Even my most intelligent friends acknowledge to me that they can’t work all the time. We are attempting to make the Turing Test irrelevant by choosing to force upon ourselves the qualities of a computer–always on, computational analysis, networked to the hilt–rather than the other way around. This makes us in danger of becoming what Tim Sanders called in Love is the Killer App a “human switch”–destined to be replaced by a computer as soon as someone writes a program to do our job.

3) We have to save ourselves. This is entirely an “opt-in” disease. With the possible exception of spam emails (remember, no one forced us to have an email address), when we view information it is because we have made the choice to do so. As such, we need to be the ones to choose to stop. This is not intuitive. Evolution has taught us to seek immediate goals when we see them and to “play nicely” with the society we exist in, so we naturally want to exploit these new technologies when we can. The key point is to keep them as tools, not tasks.

My friend’s father once gave him timely advice during a period of intense classes and schoolwork–“If you don’t ever take breaks from work, you’ll never grow as a person. You’ll just be stuck doing the same things you did before, only faster.” Taking breaks–be they traditional vacations, sabbaticals, mid-day naps, or like me, writing in this blog–seem to be essential in keeping ourselves the masters of our information. The key, as Shenk said, is to keep the interactions going on “between our ears.” It will be a long time before computers can match the beauty, mystery, and complexity of that.

In the meantime, I’d better wrap this up and post it. I’m only about halfway through those webpages …