Voice of the Jaabc Editors

Information Overload: Coping with a Quagmire

 

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Historically, the first person who has created the present avalanche of information overload is Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) who introduced printing press and the movable type to Europe. His invention of mechanical movable type printing to Europe initiated the printing revolution and is widely regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium for his machine ushered in the modern period of human history.

 

 Gutenberg shattered the ignorance of the masses. His printing machine played a critical role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution. In the process, he established the foundation for modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses. Thus, in Renaissance Europe, the revolution in printing introduced the era of mass communication which permanently changed the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information created the information overload.

 

In his groundbreaking book, Future Shock (1971), Alvin Toffler sounded the first warning more than 45 years ago. He theorized that the human brain has finite limits on how much information it can absorb and process. When a certain level of information exceeded that limit, the brain becomes overloaded. As a result, thinking and reasoning become dulled, decision-making delayed, flawed and in some cases the process of thinking stops. Even though Toffler was not a psychologist, he prognosticated that information overload will eventually lead to widespread physical and mental disturbances. Toffler called this problem "future shock syndrome."

 

In the 1970s, Toffler's warning sounded like a dose of science fiction; however, today some scientists argue that Toffler was right. They maintain that information overload can indeed cause stress build-up and disturb the central nervous system which causes harmful mental and physical changes. According to a British psychologist (David Lewis), not too many people are dying because they are exposed or getting too much information, but that they do not know how to handle information overload. Consequently, people are getting depressed by the overwhelming amount of information thrown at them.

 

Indeed, in the United States, people are being overwhelmed with tons of information. Every day, the flow of data coming from TV news, the Internet, e-mails, voicemail, newspapers, books and others is unrelenting. People are bombarded with information no matter where they happen to be at work, in the car, at the golf course, or at the movies, they are besieged by information and data. There is nowhere to go and hide from all that assault. According to an estimate, a single issue of the New York Times contains more information than the average 17th-century person would come across in an entire lifetime.

 

Most researchers are pointing the finger to the growth of technology for the barrage of information assault on our senses. The main culprit to blame has been the Internet via its unrestricted flow of e-mails on a minute basis and its culprit the Web. The average person is inundated with information despite the fact that the average person today is better prepared to absorb and process it than its primitive cousins.

 

The 21st-century man seems to have become addicted to more information. Regardless of the depressing influence of being swamped with facts and trivia, people seek out more information to make decisions. The average person has developed a voracious appetite for "more information". The consequences of this behavior is to be paralyzed by the huge amount of information thrown at him or her to devour.

 

How can we deal with this growing monster, the information overload?

 

The most important defense against information overload is the recognition of its existence, placing high value on one's time, and a determination to do something about it when it begins to cause depression, or slowing down in decision making, and constantly postponing tasks to read more about them.

 

Drawing upon many social-psychological research findings, there are three major areas wherein we need to exercise restraint: At home, at work, and at play.

 

At Home. There are three major tasks to be undertaken seriously in order to combat information overload depression. One is to limit TV viewing time and the other is to kill junk mail. Secondly,  to appeal to the Direct Marketing Association to help you deal with junk mailers and ask them to remove your name and address from all the direct mail lists with which they are associated. Thirdly, fight against the beguiling temptation to explore the vast territory of the Web. Surfing the Web for hours should stop. Limit your time on the Internet to gaining access to some information you really need. Once, found, then stop the addiction of surfing the Web for hours at a time just to find random information.

 

At Work. There three main ways to control the monster of information overload at work.  One way is to abstain from the time-consuming task to read all of your incoming e-mails. Try to glance at the subject line to identify most frivolous ones and delete them right away. Secondly, keep meetings in control by adhering to the specifics on the agenda and avoid by eliminating discussion of irrelevant matters by introducing off-target data and information. Thirdly, try to eliminate duplication by letting your colleagues know your preferred means of communication. Ask them to stop sending you the same information via an e-mail, a fax, or by phone. You would waste time paying attention to all three mode of communication. Reducing the flow of information through either e-mail or telephone would reduce the amount of information overload by the end of the day.

 

At Play. There are many ways to use your own filter system to control information overload, but let us discuss the three major ones here: One is to turn off your cellular telephone from registering messages. If a message is very important, it will be also sent either to your home or office as well. So, enjoy some peace of mind when you are away from work. Secondly, stop picking up free brochures about services and products if you are at the shopping center. These items will demand that you read them right away to see what deals are being offered. Thirdly, exercise discretion in choosing the data or information you want to digest and only pay attention to that instead of exploring all tangential information about a subject, issue, product, service, etc. Like if you want to control information overload, stop reading every billboard you pass by on the freeway just they happen to be there.

 

Most psychologist try to remind us that time is a non-renewable resource and that we all get 168 hours per week. As a result, we should view time as a valuable finite asset, and try to invest in it rather than spend it on frivolous or irrelevant data and information out there in our environment. It takes a while to screen out information as noise, but once we recognize it as such, we ignore it. The taming of the information load beast is not easy, but we should make valiant effort to mitigate its effect, if not to conquer it entirely. At home, at work, and at play just because we have access to all the information in the world, we do not have to process it all. Instead, be selective and be happy to be ignorant of the existence of irrelevant data and information. Forced ignorance, in this situation, would reduce the tyranny and depression-inducing monster called information overload.

 

 

Z. S. Demirdjian, Ph.D.

Senior Review Editor

California State University, Long Beach