Wednesday 03 December 2003


Am I the only one around here who feels overwhelmed by the volume of data I expect myself to absorb and process every day?

I just did a Google search for “information overload”. It yielded “about 296,000” results. The first, a 1994 Patti Maes paper on Agents that Reduce Work and Information Overload:

The metaphor used is that of a personal assistant who is collaborating with the user in the same work environment. The assistant becomes gradually more effective as it learns the user’s interests, habits and preferences (as well as those of his or her community)…

The set of tasks or applications with which an agent can assist the user is virtually unlimited: information filtering, information retrieval, mail management, meeting scheduling, selection of books, movies, music, etc.

The second, a three-year-old InfoWorld article on Overcoming information overload:

Alan Lightman, a humanities professor and physics lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., also takes a pessimistic view of the effect of technology on communication. People need to examine what they are getting into when they adopt technologies, he says.

“I think that the high-speed information technologies, while very useful in many ways, have robbed us of our necessary silences of time to reflect on values on who we are and where we’re going,” Lightman says.

The optimist and the pessimist: both from MIT.

I started to make a list of all the stuff I’m thinking about (let alone trying to write about) then gave up. It doesn’t really matter, given that functionally your list is identical to mine even if they don’t have even a single item in common. What’s important is the size of the list, not its contents.

I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t try to emulate my friend Karl, whom I’d describe as a late/reluctant adopter. In 1986, when I suggested that it might be useful to buy an external 400K floppy drive for his Macintosh Plus, he told me that the internal floppy drive was more than adequate. A couple of years ago he bought a television set and a VCR, having lived without television for the fifteen years I’ve known him. When I asked him last week whether he’d seen such-and-such on TV, he reminded me that his television wasn’t connected to any kind of antenna—he’d only bought it so that his young daughters could watch videos once or twice a week. Yesterday he called and asked me to send him a test email, to check that he hadn’t screwed up his email account while setting up his new ADSL connection. That surprised me. But I’d expect that within a month he’ll have figured out how to throttle back his high speed Internet access.

Karl’s not a Luddite. He has a notebook and a desktop machine and knows more about computing than most of the IT staff at the major hospital where he works as a neonatologist. Nor is he uninformed about local and international events: he listens to the radio a lot, mainly ABC Radio National (roughly the Australian equivalent of NPR). Not listening to the radio—not at home nor in the car—is perhaps my only means of filtering out information.

Even though he works longer hours than I do, Karl’s rigorous defence against the flow of unnecessary information provides him with far more time than I allow myself to read, to think, and to be silent. And even if ADSL turns out to offer a formidable challenge to his minimalist ethic, Karl has one huge advantage over me: he doesn’t blog.

Self-employment, a constant Internet connection, a weblog, and a mildly addictive personality turn out to be a killer combination—even for someone who no longer feels compelled to post regularly, let alone every day. Liz Lawley went cold turkey by taking a vacation with her family:

The best part of the trip was that by midweek I’d stopped blogging things in my head. I hadn’t realized how much I’d begun to detach from real life, always running meta-commentary in my head to save for later blogging. Letting go of that was very refreshing. It’s not that I don’t want to blog, it’s that I don’t want to do it all the time.

Although Liz didn’t say this explicitly, I think she realized that having a weblog turns information overload into a two-way process: first you suck all this stuff into your head for processing; and then you regurgitate it as weblog posts. And, while this process isn’t all that different from the ways in which we manipulate information in our jobs, it’s something that we’ve chosen to do in addition to our jobs, something that detaches us even further from “real life”. I suspect that the problem is compounded by the fact that weblog entries are—overwhelmingly—expressions of opinion and, to make it worse, many of the opinions are opinions about opinions on issues concerning which the opinionators have little, if any, firsthand knowledge or experience. Me included.

Now I’m beginning to understand what I valued so much about photography. Photographs are, to be sure, just as much a means of expressing an opinion as any other form of communication. But, somehow, its non-verbal nature confers upon the photograph an opacity that I find incredibly appealing, particularly if any captions are restricted to a spare description of the time, place, and (if appropriate) person’s name. I don’t, however, believe that this preference means that I’m assuming—in Jeff Ward’s words—that “there is an intrinsic quality to images which is either diluted or enhanced by the presence or absence of the caption”. It’s more that, for me, the absence of a comprehensive caption makes it more difficult for the photograph to trumpet an opinion. To paraphrase Lisette Model, the less the photograph tries to prove something, the more likely I am to get the lesson.

Leica Digilux 2 cameraThe other thing I realize about all that time I spent taking pictures is that photography provided an amazingly effective choke on all the extraneous information that was trying to cram itself into my head. In those years, I was preoccupied with looking at photographs, shooting photographs, processing film and making prints, thinking about photography, and watching movies. But, despite the temptation posed by this new “analog” digital Leica, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever go back to photographing with the passion and commitment I once had.

I’m also beginning to realize why, when I abandoned photography, I took up studying Japanese. It (Japanese) offers the same kind of opacity that I valued in photographs, the opacity which ensured that I never really understood even my own photographs—particularly those I was proudest of. My last photographic project was a series taken in the neonatal intensive care ward at Karl’s hospital. A couple of years later he said to me, “Just as well you managed to replace photography with Japanese… that should keep you productively engaged until you die.”

Perhaps reading Japanese more than English offers one way of filtering out the information that threatens to overwhelm me, since my lack of expertise ensures that interpreting and understanding a Japanese sentence takes much longer than one in English. And, even though this is a strategy whose effectiveness will diminish as my facility with the language improves, it might provide me with a buffer until I can figure out other ways of dealing with all the excess data.

Another way might be to try to modify my relationship with my surroundings, in Godard’s words to “go on listening… go on looking about me even more attentively than before… the world… my fellow creatures… my brothers.”

Today Norm Jenson quoted Richard Feynman:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.

To which I added, in a comment: “I also think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be right.”

Again, paraphrasing Lisette Model, when you point your camera at something, (ideally) you are asking a question and the photograph is sometimes (the right or the wrong) answer.

So perhaps I’m thinking about the ideal weblog post as one that privileges questions over opinions. Except it’s more complex than that. After all, couldn’t an opinion expressed with subtlety and restraint be another way of asking a question?

Either way, my question is the one I asked at the beginning: who else feels overwhelmed by the volume of information we expect ourselves to absorb and process every day? And how do you manage to deal with it?

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I don't.

Of course, like your friend I gave up the television years ago, and along with it the need 'to be informed'. If there's something I desperately need to know about, someone will tell me whether I want them to or not, but not having already heard the same thing 50 times on 8 different news stations, radio, and the web makes their telling me a lot more interesting.

As for technology and information, what bothers me is not how much is available. That's a huge improvement, and it's hard to imagine living without a trillion bits of info at my fingertips. But they are at my fingertips, not in my brain. I can live with that. In fact, it's immensely liberating.

What bothers me is the endless repetition of almost identical information and the laborious effort of searching through the same stuff over and again for the one shred that offers something I don't already know.

Posted by tonio on 3 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I used to feel more overwhelmed. I used to feel a compulsion to consume as much information as possible, fearing that I wouldn't be as enlightened as the next person. But eventually I realised that I was making too much of an effort, because the next person doesn't give a monkeys. And besides, if you consume everything, the truly vital stuff gets lost in the shuffle.

However, I can't give up television. Though I do watch much less than I used to, I just can't live without BBC 2 or Channel 4; even if it just means a few hours of quality programming per month, it's worth it. Also, since I am an afficionado of puroresu, or professional wrestling (that's a whole other kettle of fish!), I'd be at a loss without the ol' goggle-box.

Posted by MacDara on 3 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've been thinking about this recently. I've been battling for years to carve out space in my life for reading books; the enemy used to be newspapers and periodicals, now it's the internet (though the NYRBs do keep piling up). I spend too much time online, and I have to find a way to cut back without depriving myself of the really good stuff. I never developed a TV addiction (having grown up abroad in a time when TV wasn't much of a presence in Asia); I watch only a few hours a week (Sopranos, Six Feet Under, a movie now and then). I used to listen only to music on the radio (which left me free to read), but my wife is an NPR addict, so we listen to a lot of news/opinion shows now; fortunately, I'm able to half-listen while I surf the web or read the New Yorker (though I can't read anything that demands my full attention under such circumstances). In general, I'd say my way of dealing with information overload is to let most of it sink immediately into a sort of mental bog without trying to process it consciously; if it's of any use it may resurface as a vague idea or mental itch, but otherwise it just molders there with fading memories of old comic books and baseball games. Meanwhile, my conscious mind is free to grapple with things I'm really interested in. The danger is that I become so good at multitasking I rarely get around to concentrating on anything uninterruptedly. I'll have to... oops, have to do something else! I'll think about it later...

Posted by language hat on 4 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Funny that you should be writing about this: I have been aware of -- and fighting -- much that same feeling of being overwhelmed lately. And yet, in spite of that wide current of information carrying me along, I have been unable to speak of it in my own words. Your post, which captures the complexity of this issue so well, makes it even harder for me now ... as now there is this to digest ... and eventually to regurgitate in a post.

You are right, self-employment, a slightly addictive personality, curiosity -- they all spell trouble when it comes to blogging and the Internet. A few days ago, over our Thanksgiving holidays, I realized that, in my efforts to keep up with the blogging world -- including trying to write on my own blogs -- I am developing what appears to me to be a case of ADD. I can no longer imagine reading some of the books I used to think nothing of curling up with for a long -- and I mean long -- stretch of time. It’s almost physical now ... which is truly scary. That’s when I get on the rowing machine or play the piano. A few months ago, I would go for a long walk ... but now, it seems, the habit of checking blogs and email has me tied even more to the machine.

Having said all that, I have to admit that when I was away on a vacation, like Liz, I, too, managed to detach without much difficulty....

Posted by maria on 4 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks, everyone, for the helpful feedback and suggestions.

tonio, you're absolutely right that the need to "stay informed" is overrated since, as you say, someone will tell you whether you want them to or not. That makes me feel much more relaxed about not watching or reading the news.

MacDara, you've got the correct ratio: a few hours of quality programming per month i.e an hour, at most two, per week. The trick is resisting -- when you're tired -- the temptation to allow the deluge of crud to wash over you.

LH, I think a set of Bose Quiet Comfort 2 Noise-Canceling Headphones might be the ideal Christmas gift for you.

Maria, the habit of checking blogs and email certainly exacerbates the problem. I'm trying to implement a check four times a day policy but it's hard. When I took a two month break from blogging it was, however, very easy to disengage.

Posted by Jonathon on 5 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Unfortunately, given that you are pursuing langauge learning, and specifically learning Japanese, you are asking for trouble. Studying a language, especially one from a culture with such different foundations as Japan, makes you realize how much one needs to know and how little one actually knows. I stand up to say something in the faculty meeting, and I realize that I should have put some more time into my keigo, or been able to read the kiteisho closely rather than in the cursory manner that I do.

This is not to say that you should give up on Japanese, just realize that you in a more dangerous position because of it. Maybe taking the Japanese vacations and making them your blog vacations? Golden week and O-bon?

Posted by joe tomei on 5 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thank you for this post, Jonathon. As usual, you've lent clarity and insight to a complex issue. I recently took a month off of blogging for many if not most of the reasons you describe. I loved the new sense of freedom, but eventually, I found that I missed blogging, so I came back to it.

Now that I'm back, I'm already starting to get sucked in again, being prey to the same villains that you cite--self-employment, addictive personality, etc. As the U2 song says, "Can't live with or without you." That pretty much sums up how I feel about blogging. There may be no answer to this dilemma, but that's all the more reason to keep processing the question.

Posted by Tom Shugart on 6 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Reading your post and some of the comments, I couldn't help but think of this quote from Neal Stephenson's original website:

Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, has coined the term "continuous partial attention" to describe life in the era of e-mail, instant messaging, cellphones, and other distractions. This curious feature of modern life poses a problem for a someone like me. Every productive thing that I do requires ALL my attention.

I too have felt many of the things you and your commenters refer too. Often I am overwhelmed by things to consume - too many movies, music, books, etc... and I have to resolve this by either cutting one thing out entirely, or trying to juggle attention between those any my other interests. Wherever I can, I arrange interests in such a way as to overlap them. Blogging is particularly helpful, as I can blog the things that are currently of interest to me.

Even still, there is a major overload. This can lead to, as one of the commentors pointed out, a sort of ADD, where I consume way too many things way too quickly and I become very judgemental and dismissive. This was particularly true after about a year of blogging and reading tons of new blogs every day. There were so many blogs that I scanned (I couldn't actually read them, that would take too long for marginal gain) that I began to develop a sort of ADD. I could no longer sit down and just read a book, even a novel.

Eventually, I recognized this, took a bit of a break from blogging, and attempted to correct, with some success. Anyway, that was a great post, and I might end up having to write about it myself:)

Posted by Mark on 9 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The secret of course is filtering.

MacDara mentioned BBC2, I have about 100 cable channels on TV that I could flick through to try and find something, but I know that if I go to BBC4, I have more of a chance to watch something that's of interest to me.

BBC4 has alredy done a substantial ammount of filtering for me. I just need to further filter their programming by going through their scheduling and finding what I want.

Posted by Robert Castelo on 13 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by iche on 25 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour