The information barrage - blinded by the light

There is a quite amazing new statistic: information increases by 66% per annum, faster than any other artifact of the human race. Here I was thinking I was just getting slower at coping with it all, but indeed I am drowning in an exponentially increasing flow. What about you? How do you deal with it? It is exponential: how much harder has it become in the last two years?

I'm finding it hard just to cope. My productive work, creating content, battles for share of my day (yes I know all about rocks and pebbles in the jar). When I do apply myself, I spend most time sifting and sorting vast piles of resource. I forget far more than I use. I prune, trim, reject and cull and yet still I'm buried. The gold is in tons of gravel and the world delivers another truckload every minute.

  • I triage my emails - the unread emails number in the thousands.
  • It would take several hours of each day just to read all the discussions on the dozen LinkedIn groups I'm on and all the Questions and Answers - I randomly dip.
  • I could spend all day just following Twitter threads and web referrals - I try to keep it to an hour.
  • There is enough of interest on YouTube to keep me viewing all night - but I don't.
  • There are twenty blogs on my blogroll that I seldom get to.
  • The tweetbeeps and forum notifications and blog subscriptions and newsletters pile up in my mailbox like the junkmail they are
  • I could spend my life browsing the web but seldom get an hour a day. I run down the corridors snatching handfuls from shelves.
  • My stack of reading books - real paper ones - is now 18 high and most of them I never finish.
  • I have dropped almost all other media: newspapers, TV, magazines, radio, movies, DVDs, VCRs - I consumer almost none!
  • I don't chat on the phone and I send less than one SMS a day (except for Twitter which I run on a browser not a phone)

And yet I feel I'm drowning in it, paddling furiously just to stay afloat.

In behind that barrage, that deluge, that insane bedlam clamour of information and opinion and plain noise, there is another body of information: the serious studies and white papers (real ones not vendor ones) and textbooks and training courses and university degrees. They deserve 90% of my attention and get 5%, the important pushed out by the urgent.

Or not so much urgent as just insistent. And seductive. Trawling through the trivial takes our brain back to something approaching the levels of laziness of watching television. It's not important. We don't need to grok it. We don't even need to remember it. We just need a moment's stimulation, amusement, interest and then click on.

Something has to give. Surely this is unsustainable. All systems are self-limiting at some scale, even the human brain.

What happens when we bathe all day in a waterfall of information?

Do attention spans get so short that people become incapable of thinking seriously about anything, as suggested by Nicholas Carr?

Does the system become inherently inefficient - so much data being lost in the din that we cannot transmit enough useful information to those who need it? Will we end up duplicating and re-inventing just because we didn't know? I gather there is a lot of that going on already.

Will we just grind to a halt, clicking away at trivia in a numb state, giving up on ever taking any of it seriously?

Will we end up blinded by the light?


Step Back

Information overload is a fact of modern life we have to cope with nowadays. While huge amounts of information have always been out there, it is only in recent times that it has become available to us on a direct, personal level in volumes that are overwhelming. This is of course a function of the 'communications age' in which we now live.

The trick to dealing with this is simply one which also applies to all aspects of everyday life and decision making. Take a step back, take a breath and identify your needs - what are you trying to achieve. Forget about the data - it's a resource pool. Focus on your objectives and then use whatever tools you have at your disposal to filter the information to assist in achieving those objectives. Don't worry about trying to cram it all in. Stick to the principles of 'fit for purpose' - ie if it works well enough, be satisfied and move on.

Data != information.

Data != information. Unfortunately the press likes impressive statistics, so such meaningless figures are a good way to get headlines, and of course sales people like to throw out large numbers as well. Finding information sources with a high signal/noise ratio is becoming a critical skill. But ironically once a 'hang-out of the experts' becomes well known the noise tends to increase and the professionals leave in disgust.

digester of information

I think the stat, whatever its basis, reflects a very real increase in the information. And the stuff i get is information, not raw data. The challenge is, as you say, to find where it is being distilled into something useful, where the signal/noise ratio is high. The prime service on the internet now is to be a digester of information, though let's drop that metaphor before we follow it to its logical conclusion. the danger then is that one adopts the biases of one's information processors instead of forming one's own conclusions.

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