On July 31, 2009, the Basex blog finally ticked me off. I unsubscribed. Their crime? Harping on, and on, and on about information overload.
Basex invented the term.
Basex sponsor annual studies.
“Information overload continues to increase.”
“Information Overload is never far from our thoughts here at Basex but, with the cost of the problem looming at some $900 billion per annum…”
Look, I’m a busy manager, responsible for developing and operating an online service. I regularly process around 100 incoming email per day, send around 50, subscribe to 83 blogs, read 2 websites daily, follow 406 people on Twitter, are Friends with 55 people on Facebook, have 77 connections and 4 group memberships on LinkedIn, and I’m not suffering from information overload. Surely if it were a real problem, I’d be suffering some form of breakdown.
And yet I find myself seeking even more information. Based on a quick perusal of my last month’s search activity on Google, I average around 8 searches per day, opening an average of three to four pages per search. So, in contrast to suffering information overload, I’m actively seeking more information.
Sampling the concept of information overload
In preparing to write this post, I scanned the last 300 posts on Twitter about “information overload,” roughly corresponding to tweets over the last 24 hours. What are people saying?
- Quite a few declare their own information overload.
- I found a link to the Information Overload Research Group.
- Quite a few people quote Clay Shirky’s pithy phrase: “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure.”
- A number of people point to David Allen’s article The Problem is not information overload, which argues that purported information overload is really a decision problem (Allen uses the term: “meaning assignment”).
- Engaged Learning write a post that expands on Shirky’s filtering theme: “So instead of throwing our hands in the air and saying we suffer from information overload, we must learn to dynamically adjust our filters and focus.”
- Steve Mollman wrote a piece entitled How can we cope with information overload? It contextualises the problem, quotes Clay Shirky, but turns out to shill for a predictive filtering iPhone app called My6Sense.
- Blueprint 2020 attempts to provide six steps to “avoid” information overload.
- BNET Australia attempts to attract flow with the provocative title, Which Is Worse for Your Brain: Texting or Pot? But it betrays its heading’s promise by not only not discussing comparative mental states; worse, failing to mention pot even once in its article; yet even worse, turns into one of those completely disconnected, disjointed ten-point advice columns. Mercifully, it stops short of ten, offering only five points.
- Finally, I found my way to Steven Sagmeister’s TED address, The power of time off.
So, two years after the seminal assertion, “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure”, and four years after the initial publication of David Allen’s, “The Problem is not information overload”, the information overload meme is still buzzing.
Departing from both folk understanding and information theoretic definitions, Eli Goldratt defines “information” as “the answer to an asked question.”
“Everything else,” declares Goldratt, “is simply data.” The implication is that much of the “information” consumed each day is not, actually, information—but is, in fact, data. This data becomes information only when it begins to answer questions that you have asked.
The challenge then, is to ask questions. To ask better questions. To ask relevant, actionable, significant questions. To create a personal sense of what is important. In other words, to create a personal filter.
The more profound the question, the more significant the answer.
Data, entertainment, serendipity and information
In any given moment, the vast majority of digitally-available extant text is simply data. It answers questions I don’t ask, don’t care about, won’t read.
Much of the information delivered via blogs and virtually all information from news media is simply entertainment. (See Dave Pollard’s perspective that news media is unactionable; and therefore entertainment.) I let this stuff wash over me because I enjoy reading it. I enjoy being entertained. It’s not just data—I find it interesting. But it’s also not information, because it is irrelevant to my work, my family, my life.
There are times when an article, a post, an essay, a video delivers something unexpected. A point of view with the potential to update my personal filter. Something that causes me to ask new questions, to learn that something else is actually important to my world-view. This is serendipity.
Finally, there is information. Satisfying answers to questions asked.
Data, entertainment, serendipity and information forms a filter of ascending value.
The real problem
When viewing media consumption through this filter, the real problem becomes apparent. Despite the massive volume of data potentially available, the significant amount of data being attended to, the amount of entertainment and the occasional encounter with serendipity: the real problem is the continuing scarcity of truly significant information.
Really important information is still scarce. Richard Hamming had it right: We need to ask questions that matter.