Managing Digital Information Overload – Is Technology The Cause & The Cure? [Opinion]

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‘Drinking from the firehose’ is a turn of phrase you might not be familiar with. But believe me, if you are reading this blog and many others like this, it’s exactly what you are doing every day.  It’s not water you are trying to gulp down, but a torrent of information. Information overload is the more precise term. Also, I am pretty sure you are drowning. Digital information and information overload are the Yin and Yang of our present age.

The term itself predates the Internet age, and like a lot of verbal evasions, this too comes from a novel (Future Shock by Alvin Tofler). But then came the information age and the communication explosion brought the reality of information overload into our lives. So, let’s ask ourselves – what are the disadvantages of information overload? Is technology the cause and the cure?  And what exactly is the cure – the secret of managing information overload?

The Disadvantages Of Information (Overload)

“I have a theory about the human mind. A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up”.

So said Erma Louise Bombeck, the American humorist. Sometimes I feel that she was spot on. Our brain does “blow up” without making a kaboom sound. Let’s list a few disadvantages that too much information might be putting us into. Agree or disagree…do rant away in the comments.

  • Information overload is not only about too much data but also about the different types of it. All non-essential information adds to the clutter and ends up as – garbage in…garbage out.
  • Information overload decreases efficiency as individuals and organizations waste time managing it.
  • Information duplication is cheap but wastes resources. For instance, digital information is often printed out. Information on paper is also digitized. These have a cost.
  • Information sharing has become easier. Think social networks and think loss of privacy as everyone is available 24 x 7.
  • Information is not only about receiving, but also about sending it out. For example, emails are meant to be replied to. Email overload is a real stress factor.
  • Attempting to manage information (or related tasks) has given rise to the multi-tasking trend. The jury is still out on whether multi-tasking is ultimately counter-productive or not.
  • Ultimately, too much information makes it difficult to decide quickly and effectively. For example, try reading a few reviews when you are planning to buy a mobile phone next time.

Is Technology The Cause & The Cure For Information Overload?

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“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

So said Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian educator, and the computer had yet to arrive into our lives. Computers made it easy to create, transmit, and store vast amounts of information. Computer processing power is getting ramped up, but the ability of the human brain to process information has remained relatively unchanged. There lies a speed bump and the root cause of information clog.

Thanks to computers and the Internet, the cost of duplicating information is nil. Poorly designed information spreads just as fast as a well-designed one. And both end up competing equally for your attention. Think of Digg stories – in the technology stream, the latest iPhone 5 news competes with Demi Moore’s scandalously tweeted pictures.

Computers have given rise to the side-industry of spam. Spam is information overload taken to the next degree. From productivity to CO2 emissions, spam extracts a huge cost in millions. Companies spend their own millions developing technologies to combat it.

Search engines have knitted the web, but they are also about noise. How do you pick the right information?

The Secret Art of Managing Information Overload

“Intelligence is not the ability to store information, but to know where to find it.”

So said Albert Einstein (no introductions necessary) and he gave away the secret. The art (or science) perhaps lies in asking the right questions. Let’s take search for example. We can only get the relevant information if we use the right keywords. Relevant results also help us to focus on quality of information rather than quantity.

The glut of information is not in our hands. But controlling what we consume is. Ways to manage information overload are already inbuilt in the technologies we use. Gmail has excellent spam filters, a great labeling system which enables you to prioritize your emails. Feed readers can be customized to pull in the information that’s needed rather than all that’s interesting out there. Don’t hit the subscribe button so often!

You can go for a functional device rather than a feature rich one. How about just an iPhone instead of both an iPhone and an iPad? Alternatively, you can limit the number of apps you install on your smartphone.

Combating information overload could also start with doing your part with well crafted emails, clearing your desktop clutter, tagging your music collection, or downloading files only when you need them.

Technology does indeed have the answers. Our previous look at 7 Sites That Can Help You Deal With Information Overload also drops a few hints.

In my opinion, stripped to its simplest, managing information overload is as much about ‘behavior engineering’ as it is about information engineering.

Are you suffering from the curse? Do you have a cure? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credits: Shutterstock, SparkCBC, Geek & Poke

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