I wrote earlier about the challenges of assessing the quality of online information (by the way, I am still keen on getting your comments about this topic). This post looks at issues of quantity and how we deal with the vast amounts of information available online.
The futurologist Alvin Toffler predicted in his book Future Shock, first published in 1970, that the rapidly increasing amounts of information being produced would eventually undermine our ability to understand a problem and make decisions. This limitation is known as ‘Information Overload’ and is illustrated in figure 1.
Figure 1. Information overload as the inverted U curve
Source: Eppler and Mengis 2003
It is not a new problem and it certainly isn’t exclusive to the Internet. The blurb in the back cover of a book I acquired in a library clearance not long ago (figure 2) reads: ‘(t)oday more than ever we are expected absorb and retain a great deal of written information quickly and attentively’. The interesting thing is that the book – ‘Read Better, Read Faster’ by Manya and Eric De Leeuw – was published in 1965… long before the days of the worldwide web!
Figure 2. Excerpt from back cover of ‘Read Better, Read Faster’
According to Eric Schmidt, nowadays we create in 2 days the equivalent of content produced by mankind since the beginning of time up until 2003. This may be a grossly incorrect figure according to this post in the blog ‘The Metric System’. Whether it is 5 Exabytes of information created every 2 days or 23 Exabytes of information recorded and replicated every 7 days, the fact is that the Internet and, in particular, the democratisation of content production saw the explosion of available content.
In the mid 1990s, a friend of mine had a paper directory of online resources. These were the days of dial-up Internet connections and this book was like a phone directory but for the worldwide web, with URLs in place of phone numbers. It was fairly big but manageable. It would be unthinkable to have a paper directory of the web, today. It would be huge and immediately outdated.
Increasingly, we feel anxious that we are missing out on some important update or insight. Coping strategies include checking our e-mail boxes all the time – including first thing in the morning, last thing before going to sleep… and even in the middle of the night. On weekends, festive days and family holidays. A third of respondents in the Digital Lifestyle Information Survey 2011 even claimed that they gave up sleep to try and keep up with the flood of information on their digital inboxes. I haven’t reached that stated of desperation, yet. But I confess that, most of the times, I do struggle to keep up with the inflow of information and feel anxious about what I don’t know that I am missing.
Do you feel anxious? How do you cope with the inflow of information on the web?
Clay Shirky said that it is not a problem of the information available, but rather how we filter it. That is, that rather than trying to read everything, we need to reduce the input that we deal with. One mechanism to control the flow of information is through automatic filters. These are algorithms that edit and deliver personalised search results to different users based on parameters such as the computer you have, the browser you use or your location. However, these filters show you what you might want to see rather than what you need to see. They have the potential to leave us ‘isolated in the web of one’, as so competently argued by Eli Pariser in this TED talk:
The diffusion of the printing press was met with ambivalent feelings in its time. There was enthusiasm about benefits such as the diffusion of learning, but there was also concern that the increased output would hurt scholarship, as described by Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein. Hopefully, we can learn from history and create a society that is more aware of others’ points of views, not less. That has much to do with the information available to each and every one of us.