Saturday, June 14, 2008

Information Overload

Sorry for having been quiet the last days, I've been busy with too many things and I'm running behind on scheduling some upcoming trips (not to mention preparing the seminars attached to it).

If you have been following this blog for a while, you know that I'm skeptic when it comes to an evaluation of assets and drawbacks of the new online connectivity as to whether it is the assets that weigh more. The bottomline of my posts most often is of the form: Change happens somehow, we'll have to figure out whether it's a change for better and if not, readjust it. (If you memorize this sentence, you'll pretty much get the essence of everything I write). The big question is whether there can be change that hinders its own readjustment which in my post Cast Away I referred to as the 'Fiesta-Feature' - the problem you cause when putting the keys in the trunk that will lock on close.

One of the problems I have been writing about is Information Overload:

“[I]nformation overload is not only caused by the sheer volume of information, but also because of the complexity or confusing structure of information that might overtax the user’s cognitive skill to focus on relevant information ... Therefore Helmersen et al. (p. 2) characterize information overload as “difficulties in locating, retrieving, processing, storing and/or reretrieving information due to the volume of available information.” Information overload may lead to stress, health problems, frustration, disillusionment, depression, as well as impaired judgment and bad decision making ... From an ethical perspective, these consequences of information overload are problematic, because they undermine several basic principles, especially the requirement of participants’ autonomy/self-determination and the nonmaleficence principle.”
Behr, Nosper, Klimmt & Hartmann (2005) Some Practical Considerations of Ethical Issues in Virtual Reality Research, Presence Teleoperators & Virtual Environments 14:6, 668 (2005).

In my post The Spirits That We Called we've been discussing some secondary problems caused by the fact that information people indeed process isn't just what is available, but what is cheaply available. Faced with an overabundance of information, this potential input has to be filtered somehow, and ideally so without much effort - this is what eventually determines what is most likely to be read by many people. This cheapness is becoming more and more important, esp. for our political systems, and is unfortunately a factor that can easily be influenced with money and power. So much about democracy.

Either way, another question that I've raised in the post Can Technology Make us happy? is the conflict of short-term pleasures with long-term happiness. This is pretty much a problem of addiction (though not necessarily in the clinical sense), may that be to TV, online games, constant email checking, or blogging. The question is whether and how such developments will be corrected.

Especially when it comes to email, this is by now a fairly well documented one, as you can see e.g. from the quote about information overflow above, and companies are starting to draw conclusions from that. Among others, Loblaw, U.S. Cellular Corp (via Daily Commercial News) and Intel introduced the E-mail free Friday (via USA Today). Also the Departments of the Canadian government have urged their employees to turn off BlackBerries over night.

The Globe and Mail recently wrote in an article titled No e-mails, please. I'm trying to work
"But now there's a growing awareness that these technological tools can distract us from our work, filling our days with interruptions that, while work-related, prevent us from thinking carefully for any unbroken stretch of time.

That's one reason why companies such as Loblaw, Intel Corp. and U.S. Cellular Corp. are enforcing e-mail-free days, or restricting BlackBerry use in the office.

Others set aside time for creative thinking: Google Inc.'s 20-per-cent rule allows engineers to spend one day a week working on ideas that aren't in their job description. Gmail and Google News both grew out of ideas conceived during 20-per-cent time."

The reason why self-correction works in this case has, unsurprisingly, a priori nothing to do with happiness but with profit. Constantly checking email can be a productivity killer, which is why a small but growing number of companies are trying to do something about it.

It is in this regard very interesting that I read today in the NYT
Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast


Some of the biggest technology firms, including Microsoft, Intel, Google and I.B.M., are banding together to fight information overload. Last week they formed a nonprofit group to study the problem, publicize it and devise ways to help workers — theirs and others — cope with the digital deluge.


The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according to Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work.

Companies are also realizing that there is money to be made in helping people reduce their digital gluttony. Major corporations around the world are searching for ways to keep software tools from becoming distractions, said John Tang, a researcher at I.B.M., who is a member of the new group."

For me, the big question is though how long will it take for academic non-profit organizations to realize the processing capacity of the human brain is finite. Unfortunately, instant email reply and reliance on being read is a peer-enforced group problem that is very unlikely going to be solved on the individual level.

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  1. When access requires expertise, limited infrastructure, physical effort, expenditure... price and cost are coupled - standing on a soap box and shouting included.

    When price and cost decouple - send to one person and Cc: 200 more without penalty - there ensues a deluge of crap. The mob is very Bell Curve. The worst of it is loudest.

    What is the cure? Discrimination (and bloody Hell don't put the government in charge). Mediocrity is a vice of the doomed.

  2. "One reason that Jefferson, or for that matter Zola or Balzac or any of these great figures of the 18th and 19th centuries got so much done, so much more done than people today, is that they didn't have any time-saving or labor-saving devices...If Jefferson were alive today....he'd never finish answering the email." - Tom Wolfe

  3. Bee, I know all about information inundation and it is now inherent in the American way of life. At some point a smart individual (this sounds like psychosis) will make a conscious decision to lower this noise. Unfortunately, this does not include most of the population. The massive abuse of cellphone use is eroding cognitive abilites. The brain is exceedingly complex and is composed of regions which wire differently and perform in accordance with environment. Cell phone abusers utilise the auditorial region only which is fully removed from fight or flight (and creative cognitive abilities)daily requirement. Cell phone zombies are easy and surprised targets for gun in your face robberies. Point is "whole brain usage" and relaxation is being damaged by the information onslaught. I hope this does not aim us down a dark evolutionary future. Mark

  4. Hi Bee,

    As in the past there is not much for me to say other then to admit I share your concerns. Although I acknowledge most of the symptoms and many of the pathogens I’m not certain, as many here as what to be the cure.

    I guess you could relate this to obesity which while is not a disease in itself can and does mitigate illnesses which are actually the disease. So can we simply say that the pathogen is food or should we say the pathogen is bad judgment in being able to know only good food from bad food yet also how much of it is good or bad for you?

    So what are our choices in preventing this, do we educate people on what is a healthy diet, do we restrict or ban certain foods or do we have all to report for their daily rations only given after we weigh and access each one? For me the only acceptable course of action is the first, while all others either lessen or eliminate what we recognize to be an individual. I would then have us further be mindful that the treatment proposed not only its cause be carefully accessed.



  5. Why does anyone feel they have to answer email immediately? I have old, unread messages from over 10 years ago, and as best I can tell, they are still doing fine in my in box. Is this something like the people who just HAVE to answer a phone just because it is ringing? I mean, if it's important, they'll call again or leave a message.

  6. Hi Kaleberg,

    I don’t know if I would take this as far as you have with ignoring messages for ten year or only responding to voice mail. This for me is perhaps connected with avoidance and or a little reclusiveness. I deal with such things a little bit differently.

    When it comes to emails at work, I advise my colleagues not to send me ones that are simply of the look what I’m contributing type, look what others are not doing type, cover my ass type or are not directly related to me in terms of required action type, else I will respond to them and those CCed as to what I understand to be the real purpose and or intent they serve.

    With clients, if they have sent me a message that fails to realize or intended to avoid a required dialogue, I respond with an email reminding them of this and requesting a call or a meeting.

    However, I must admit that at times it has made me unpopular with some and yet I would maintain allowed me to be more productive and sane. This I don’t look at as being bold or provocative, simply reasonable.



  7. Garrett,

    You should try to watch the series called John Adams if you ever get the chance. The time in mail deliveries between the lives of John Adams and Jefferson would have been made it much easier, knowing, that each took their letter writing to each other to the very end.

    In regard to "Information Overload?"

    Information Overload?

    This shows the benefit that Tammaso Dorigo reveals helping one understand the current scientific basis currently being examined in the LHC.

    This article should be linked to Information Overload above.

  8. Bee:

    It has been my habit from the beginning to treat my email like regular mail: I check it once a day and I answer it at some convenient point over the next week -- if it deserves an answer.

    I have never carried a cell phone -- I call them electronic leashes and will have nothing to do with them. Ditto for blackberries.

    If you want to communicate with me in real time, you're welcome to drop by my office or call me. If I’m not there you will have to try again. Oh, well. C'est la vie.

    Yes, all this makes some people think I am strange -- but at least I can hear myself think...

  9. Hi Mark,

    Do you happen to know of any research done regarding the question of how cellphone use, constant emailing and so on affects the brain directly? I mean, I know of several studies examining stress, productivity, and so on, but have there been neurological studies as to how the direct influence on cognitive ability is?

    At some point a smart individual (this sounds like psychosis) will make a conscious decision to lower this noise. Unfortunately, this does not include most of the population.

    Yes. So what's the thing to do then? You're supposed to study the situation, collect the facts, extract the macro-interest, and make a recommendation for how to ensure the micro-interests are not in conflict with it. If you read the mentioned earlier post Can Technology make us happy?, it starts with a (deliberately provocative) quotation comparing TV to cocaine. What do you do when an emergent development leads to a wide spread behaviour that is potentially dangerous on the long run? First thing is you make people aware of the problem. Best,


  10. Hi Kaleberg,

    Why does anyone feel they have to answer email immediately

    As I mentioned above, this is very much a problem of peer-pressure and social norms. If all of your friends do so, if everybody at your place of works does so, you'll feel the pressure to also do so or be an outsider. One can be an outsider, but few people have the personality for that. (It might sound kind of romantic for some, but they will figure out rapidly it isn't.) It might very well be that you, or other people, just don't feel this pressure. As to me, e.g. all of my friends and relatives know that it doesn't mean much if I don't instantly reply to an email, so they are used to that. Otoh I am working in an institution where a significant part of the organization runs via email and that on potentially very short notice. You're kind of taking yourself out of the network if you don't check your email and don't know what extra seminar is announced where, or who is going to dinner where or what else is going on. Best,


  11. Hi Anonymous,

    Yes, all this makes some people think I am strange -- but at least I can hear myself think...

    I am very sympathetic to that. As I said to Kaleberg above though, it is very much a matter of personality, and I doubt very many people do have the personality to provoke others of thinking they are strange.

    As to myself, I've come to like the BB, mostly because I don't have to turn on the computer to check email. For me, it saves time, and lowers distraction.



  12. Hi Phil,

    So what are our choices in preventing this, do we educate people on what is a healthy diet, do we restrict or ban certain foods or do we have all to report for their daily rations only given after we weigh and access each one? For me the only acceptable course of action is the first, while all others either lessen or eliminate what we recognize to be an individual. I would then have us further be mindful that the treatment proposed not only its cause be carefully accessed.

    As I have expressed previously, I think there are limits to what education can do. The problem in this case is that this education has to compete with an enormous industry that is covering the world with advertisements showing happy and good looking people munching all kinds of stuff. It's a psychological problem you can't get across with education. To me, this would be the point to start. This whole advertisement sector is as far as I am concerned working against the interests of the majority of people in that it suggests lifestyles with long-term drawbacks. This shouldn't be supported. I am not into banning anything, except when it comes to children who aren't really capable of making good judgements. As far as adults are concerned, I think they are free to do whatever they want unless it restricts other people's rights or freedom. That is to say, if somebody wants to eat until he drops dead, he can go ahead as far as I am concerned, but he shouldn't expect much sympathy from me (i.e. I don't want to pay into a health insurance that covers his health problems).

    Regarding the information overload problem, as I said above I think the first step is to do sensible studies and cause an awareness for the problem. It is not that this is such a new issue coming up. I.e. it was a central point in Homer-Dixon's book The Ingenuity Gap and the book is from 2000. The problem is that we are so damned slow in drawing consequences, and that, I am afraid, is a sign already that we are putting the key in the trunk. Best,


  13. Hi Bee again,

    That is just it. There is no consensus on this issue at all and it differs from bureaucacy to institution, from group to group. I think (that is a problem) that this issue is currently out of league with the psychology profession, studies. It's possible that it could become a mainstream issue but why should the media even address this as information or misinformation is their bread and butter. I am sure that you are aware that all of this media, cell phones, emails (even) have ads too. The only studies I am aware of that address information overload and affect on cognitive abilities are those by the US military on fighter jet cockpit awareness and information management for that individual. they address it directly in a 'structured' manner. Hardly helps us though but does suggest that there are "best management practices". DARPA probably has stuff on this too. Again, I did not mean to suggest that excessive cell phone usage immediately damages cognitive abilities or the brain but it could derail one's best effort toward the day's goal(there may be long term consequences not yet foreseen). Millions of people defocused all over the World daily may not be good either. I believe the brain bounces back rather quickly but the media onslaught introduces stressors.
    (On your post above) And yes I do not feel that "hunting and gathering" on Google is bad. He is right whenever we are engaged the brain is wiring or re-wiring. Music does this wonderfully. I hate talking, sorry for the wind.


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