Information Overload

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First comprehensively treated by the futurologist Alvin Toffler (1970), information overload refers to excessive flows and amounts of data or information that can lead to detrimental computational, physical, psychological, and social effects. For the vast majority of human history, information was scarce and its production, dissemination, and retrieval were nearly unqualified goods that could improve culture, develop commerce, and promote personal autonomy. The advance of information and communication technologies especially since World War II has transformed this scarcity into an abundance. For example, Peter Lyman and Hal Varian (2003) estimated that print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced roughly five exabytes of new information in 2002, equivalent to the information that could be stored in 37,000 libraries the size of the Library of Congress. This doubled the amount of new information that had been stored just three years earlier. The glut of information takes several forms and raises many concerns. Indeed it is ironic that information technologies, envisioned by many of their progenitors as devices for organizing information, improving understanding, and boosting productivity often also contribute to disorders, inefficiencies, and confusion.

Causes and Types

Technology, the free-market, and democracy have nearly erased the limits that once caused only the most important information to be published and distributed. Computers, cell phones, the Internet, optical cables, and wireless and satellite transmissions are just a few key technologies fueling the information age. People have become increasingly dependent on such technologies in both their professional and private lives, making information overload nearly unavoidable. The ease and low cost of online publishing and electronic mailing swells the amount of available information, including irrelevant and low quality information.

Information overload occurs in several forms. The term is frequently used in computer theory when so much information has entered an information-processing system that the system cannot easily, if at all, process it. This is usually due to hardware or software limitations, and the idea parallels findings by psychologists that cognitive constraints limit human capacities to process information. Information overload has also been utilized by cognitive scientists in their explanations of intelligent activity. One example is Herbert Simon's concept of near decomposability (where short-run behavior of components is independent of other components in the same system). An organism's visual subsystem, for example, can suffer from information overload, while the overall organism does not. In turn, the overall organism can suffer information overload, because it may lack the architectural structure to manage the information gathered and transmitted by each of its subsystems. Another more general concept useful in describing information overload is the decline in the signal-to-noise ratio, which denotes the proportion of useful information to all information present in some particular context.

Information overload is commonly experienced in the workplace, especially by managers and government officials who must synthesize growing streams of data. Academics and others who perform research are also negatively impacted by excessive flows of information that make it hard to discern high from low quality knowledge. Finally, information overload is a general experience shared by citizens in developed nations, where streams of information from a variety of media are unavoidable in daily life. Human beings have limited cognitive capacities to store and render information meaningful, and the blitz of information made available by modern technology can easily overwhelm these capacities. Spam, unsolicited commercial bulk E-mail, and its attendant aggravations and lawsuits highlight one specific instance of the personal and social ramifications of information overload.

Effects and Responses

Although information overload in computers can cause technical and social problems, its most detrimental effects usually occur when individual humans must cope with excess information. Indeed Toffler summarized one of the most pernicious effects with his term information anxiety. Richard Saul Wurman (1989) explains that, "Information anxiety is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. It happens when information doesn't tell us what we want or need to know" (p. 222). Showing the close connection between information overload and the overwhelming speed of modern social change, Wurman warns that information anxiety limits people to being only seekers of knowledge, because there is no time to reflect on the meaning of that knowledge for one's life. Many people become so obsessive in this quest that they experience what some have called an information addiction (Reuters 1997).

The printing press and its many unintended social consequences are often cited as precursors to such ethical implications of increased information. The sociologist Georg Simmel pointed to information overload in several of his studies. For example, he noted that some city dwellers developed the habit of hardly noticing individuals when moving through a crowd. In the 1960s, James G. Miller researched the psycho-pathological effects of information overload, and Karl Deutsch described information overload as a disease of cities that limits freedom as well as efficient communication and transport. In his 1986 Overload and Boredom, the sociologist Orrin E. Klapp argued that the second law of thermodynamics applies to information and culture as well as energy: The greater a social system's information and culture output the greater the system's disorganization in the form of information overload. This yields noise, banality, alienation, despair, anxiety, disenchantment, anomie, feelings of illegitimacy, and absurdity. Boredom results not from the absence of stimulation, but by its excess and repetition. Irrational or poor decisions can also result from information overload. Indeed, some researchers in choice behavior argue that too much choice can be a bad thing (Schwartz 2004).

Walter Kerr (1962) argued that modern societies erode pleasure because the information made available nearly anywhere (now via cell phones and portable computers) enables work to impinge on leisure time. On the positive side, this can improve work and enhance communication with loved ones. In a similar vein, some research suggests that children exposed to computer-enriched environments develop higher-order thinking abilities to a significantly greater degree than those not so exposed (Hopson 2001). Finally, recent philosophers (such as Braybrooke 1998) have conceptualized social information overload as a central element in the logic and processes of social change more generally.

A 1996 survey conducted by Reuters is just one of many reports investigating the effect of information overload. Surveying more than 1,000 managers, this report found that increasing numbers of people suffer ill health due to the stress of information overload and important decisions are delayed by excessive information. David Lewis proposed the term Information Fatigue Syndrome for the symptoms uncovered in this report, including poor decision making, difficulties in remembering, reduced attention span, and stress. Nearly half of those surveyed predicted that the Internet would play a primary role in aggravating the problem further. Yet in a follow-up report two years later, researchers at Reuters found that only 19 percent of respondents felt the Internet was making the situation worse, while nearly half felt it was improving the situation. More broadly, this report concluded that the age of information overload is waning, because although some economies were still struggling with it (for example, Southeast Asia), others (such as the United States, Japan, and Western Europe) were beginning to overcome it.

Timely, relevant, and accurate information is crucial for much of the government and many sectors of the economy (although opinions on the degree to which information is important for different tasks vary across the globe). So, if the solution is not to simply tune out, how are the problems posed by information overload resolved? Solutions can be categorized under the broad heading of information management. Entities implementing information management policies (according to the 1998 Reuters report) experienced marked increases in productivity and decision-making capability. Information management in this context connotes methods for evaluating, prioritizing, and processing information (for example, the ranking operations performed by many search engines). Technology (especially e-mail and the Internet) is increasingly regarded as enabling information management rather than exacerbating information overload. Work practices are being adapted to use information technologies more effectively and businesses increasingly rely on a single, trusted source of comprehensive information in order to improve efficiency.

Perhaps a computer-neural interface will be developed to improve cognitive abilities to process and store information, but will this necessarily enhance the capacity to understand and control nature and society? One conundrum raised by the issue of information overload is that infinitely increasing both information and the capacity to use that information does not guarantee better decisions leading to desired outcomes. After all, information is often irrelevant, either because people are simply set in their ways, or natural and social systems are too unpredictable, or people's ability to act is somehow restrained. What is required, then, is not just skill in prioritizing information, but an understanding of when information is not needed. These cases do not point to insoluble problems. Instead they raise a more appropriate question most eloquently stated by T. S. Eliot (1952) in The Rock: "Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge and where is the knowledge lost in information?"


SEE ALSO Communication Systems;Cyberculture;Hardware and Software;Information;Information Society.


Braybrooke, David. (1998). Moral Objectives, Rules, and the Forms of Social Change. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Eliot, T. S. (1952). Complete Poems and Plays. New York: Harcourt and Brace.

Hopson, Michael H. (2001). "Using a Technology-Enriched Environment to Improve Higher-Order Thinking Skills." Journal of Research on Technology and Education 34(2): 109–119.

Klapp, Orrin Edgar. (1986). Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society. New York: Greenwood Press.

Reuters. (1996). "Dying for Information? An Investigation into the Effects of Information Overload in the U.K. and Worldwide," news release.

Reuters. (1997). "Glued to the Screen: An Investigation into Information Addiction Worldwide," news release.

Reuters. (1998). "Out of the Abyss: Surviving the Information Age, news release.

Schwartz, Barry. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Ecco. Challenges the view of humans as rational utility maximizers and argues that unlimited choice can lead to suffering.

Toffler, Alvin. (1970). Future Shock. New York: Random House. Argues that there can be too much change in too short of a time, and therefore people need to improve their ability to wisely regulate, moderate, and apply technology to serve human ends. Information overload is discussed on pages 311–315.

Wurman, Richard Saul. (1989). Information Anxiety. New York: Doubleday.

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Information Overload

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