Why Information Overload Matters

Scott Berkun recently proposed the following hypothesis about information overload here: “It doesn’t make the world any worse to add more information to it, since we can’t be/feel more overloaded than we already do.”  This short essay is in response to his hypothesis.

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Is all information created equally?  The simple answer is ‘no’ — some information is simply better than other information.  The world is indeed worse off if “junk” is posted on the Web because I must use part of my capacity to consume information to sort through irrelevant junk.

Consider the following example.  Suppose you wish to get from X to Y in a Euclidean world and are seeking out information (directions) to get from X to Y. It is possible that there are many different way to get there; it is also conceivable that there are many routes that won’t get you there. Does any of this matter? Clearly, I think the answer is ‘yes’; there is a well defined objective goal of getting from X to Y, so I think it’s fair to assume that directions that don’t get you there are worth less than those that do.

Let’s examine the assumption that information overload is indeed a constant. I take that to mean that at some threshold I can no longer physically consume any more information. To simplify my argument let’s say an individuals threshold is 10 articles a day. Suppose that I must sift through three articles containing directions to Y and carefully analyze them in order to find the “correct” directions that will actually get me to Y. I end up wasting two articles of my information capacity on irrelevant noise. This is an example of when the world can be worse off with more information.

The more noise that is out there the harder it is to find the best and most accurate information. Sure, there is a limit as to what I can consume, but the quality of the information I consume can vary. Again, the more noise out there, the more time I have to spend sorting through “junk” information to get to the relevant stuff and thus, it is very possible for the world to be worse off with more “junk” information on the Web.

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3 Comments on “Why Information Overload Matters”

  1. James Kalbach says:

    Good thoughts, Greg. I also think Scott’s take on information overload is from an average person’s experience with information in private situations. Researchers in biomed, for instance, have a responsibility to find related studies and show their work is original. This has gotten exponentially harder over the last decade.

    Or, in my company’s domain, legal research is very challenging with information overload. Professional settings definitely suffer from information overload more than the average guy with too many RSS feeds.

    As we get more and more information in disciplines, the notion of “undiscovered public knowledge” becomes more relevant and harder to solve. See: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a907085983~frm=abslink

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