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February 14, 2009


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So '90s? Heck, The Police were singing about "Too Much Information" 25 years ago, weren't they? The solution to information overload, if there is one (or needs to be one), lies with the individual. As long as people continue to be addicted to their iPods/wireless Internet/Crackberries/24-7-365 connectivity, they're essentially asking to be bombarded with crap. We bring this on ourselves, David. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Well, this is probably what I think too, RareOne.

Reminds me of the Mencken quote, about "the so-called drink problem," and why most people don't waste a lot of time trying to solve it:

"The real reason why they steer clear of the gabble is simpler and more creditable. It is this: that none of them—that no genuinely thoughtful and prudent man—can imagine any solution which meets the tests of his own criticism—that no genuinely intelligent man believes the thing is soluble at all."

And yet an intelligent colleague has been at this for years and is still at it--and at no monetary profit to himself--so something must cause him to go on.

I've forwarded him the link to this blog and wish he would pipe up here.

There’s no question that a significant amount of information overload is self-imposed. We subscribe to too many things. We follow too many links. We Twitter, blog and download.

And yet . . . much of what we deal with is not optional. We spend hours plowing through our email boxes, only to see them fill up again. We try to find knowledge in an avalanche of Google links. We buy disk drives by the terabyte. We try to keep up with all the things we should read, process or respond to – whether it’s blog posts, Facebook, tweets, IMs, voice mail, LinkedIn or a dozen other things. In short, our workplace (and our home) too often feels like a pinball machine – and we’re the pinball.

All this comes with a price – stress, lack of focus, inability to remember what we’ve seen or find what we’ve filed. Newspapers are going out of business for several reasons, and one of them is that we don’t have time to read them. It remains to be seen what effect all this will have on democracy . . . but I believe our current economic mess resulted in part from our collective inability to pay attention (or pay attention to the right things). Maggie Jackson’s “Distracted” makes the case that we’re entering a “dark age” better than I can here. And Mark Hurst’s “Bit Literacy” provides some strategies for coping.

NYU Professor Clay Shirky famously said, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” (In fact, he called people who focus on information overload “pathetic.”) In the long run, he’s probably right. Artificial intelligence will likely provide the filters that enable us to thrive in the ocean of information we swim in. But until AI is ready for prime time, we need to do something different. The Information Overload Research Group (iorgforum.org) is trying to connect organizations that have the problems with people who have (at least partial) solutions. And to encourage the right research to generate more and better solutions.

By the way, the International Association of Business Communicators is also trying to help. You can read their study on how to communicate in an overloaded environment at www.iabc.com/rf/reports.htm.

Bill, thanks very much for writing this and thanks, my teasing aside, for thinking about this issue. One of the consequences of this information age is that it is hard to pick a path and stick with it. Keep us posted on your work.

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