Michelle Manafy Information overload: fact, fantasy or filter failure?
Jinfo Blog

Wednesday, 23rd May 2012

By Michelle Manafy


Information overload is a figment of your imagination. Or a failure of your filter. Or a symptom of your technological submissiveness. Depends on who you ask.


Information overload is a figment of your imagination. Or a failure of your filter. Or a symptom of your technological submissiveness. Depends on who you ask.

When you consider overload from a numbers perspective, it seems like a genuine problem: According to IDC and EMC research 1.8 zettabytes of information were created and replicated in 2011. That daunting number set to double this year. If you are like most people, getting a clear picture of 1.8ZB won't be easy. A zettabyte is 1 billion gigabytes, but Mashable created a nice infographic that paints a clearer picture. For example, if every person in the United States Tweeted three tweets per minute for 26,976 years non-stop, they would generate 1.8ZB of information.  

Given the sheer volume of data, how is it that Altimeter Group's Brian Solis has just written about "The Fallacy of Information Overload"? Seems real enough to most of us who are flooded with information. Mind you, that sentiment "isn't a new phenomenon by any means. The sensation of being overwhelmed by information has been linked to every media revolution," according to Solis. However he says that "the symptoms of information overload are only a reflection of our inability or lack of desire to bring order to our chaos." He cites Clay Shirky's famous comment that "There's no such thing as information overload – only filter failure."

Yet as Tony Schwartz wrote on the HBR blog the same week, people are "struggling to manage what feels more and more like a tsunami – information coming at us in wave after wave, threatening to overwhelm everything else in our lives." Like Solis, he points out that this is not a new feeling. Schwartz quotes Nobel Prizing winning economist Herbert Simon's comment from 1970: "What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of the recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

While Solis drops in Shirky's memorable meme in as support of his fallacy premise, the larger context is essential to understand what he means by filter. Shirky isn't blaming the victim; he’s not suggesting that people are too lazy or inept to properly filter information. Rather, he illustrates how the increasing democratisation of the ability to create information (which started with the Gutenberg press) has created an ever-lower threshold for what gets published, yielding an increasingly unfiltered and unfettered flow of information.

While digital technologies have made it easier than ever to create and consume information, Schwartz believes that "Technology has no business setting our agenda, but it has turned into our dominatrix... we submit to it, emailing, texting, tweeting, searching Google, checking Facebook..." He also wisely points out that despite our affinity for technology, we are not computers. And that "what makes human beings unique is our capacity for reflection."

He's right: We are not computers. And most people's brains don't function like filters. Certainly, there are those among us who parse the stuff quickly. But you should be able to rely on trusted information creators to offer some filtering help. Here at FreePint, our Article Categories are a step in that direction. We also provide "useful if you work in" tags so that you can quickly skim content in our newsletters and PDF publications to more easily identify what might be of value to you and your team.

As Solis says, "We are obligated to maintain balance in who we are, what we value, and equally the value we invest in the communities in which we participate." Knowing what you, our readers, value is important, so we welcome your feedback via email or article comments at any time. We look forward to continuing to return your investment in the FreePint community. 

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