Information Overload

The flip side of the behavioral change that results from new media that I wrote two days ago is information overload. It’s a many-sided dilemma. We can’t manage the information that’s available to us. We’re burdened by too much information. Too many book recommendations, articles, websites and social media messages.

In this climate it’s difficult to determine the truly important and meaningful from the trivial and fleeting. It all comes at us with speed, volume and missing context. We lose our bearings.

Easy access to so much information can lead to a demand for a continuous flow of new information even if none exists. It’s been suggested that this creates a treadmill for producers to stay ahead of our expectations. So they send along less significant,  less meaningful content that adds to our overload and further homogenizes the truly useful.

I was reminded of this by the cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review that equates higher production of less important content to a hamster wheel. Journalists are producing more and reflecting deeply upon less, according to the article.

It raises the question: Do we really need all that’s being churned out? Is it driven by insatiable appetite and addiction to the continuous flow, and not by a functional need? (There are currently 14,800,000 Google results for Twitter addiction as I write this post.) Can’t we form an opinion, or act upon what we already know?

It’s been argued that our appetite for new information is reducing attention span. I’ve thought a lot about this and I remain a skeptic. I became aware of my own shortening attention span long before digital media entered my life. I noticed it when I was working in New York in a communications job that required me to manage several projects at once, supervise staff, attend meetings and write, edit, and produce.

I found myself juggling several balls at once, unable to give undivided attention to any one of them as I preferred.

Even before that I took a course in speed reading well before the Internet was a gleam in anyone’s eyes. And I’ve practiced some of those techniques ever since.

As for the claim that content is less meaty than in the past, I’m not sure. The cjr article seems to say journalistic quality hasn’t suffered even as output has increased significantly. My recollection of pop culture and mass media is that it’s always run on the fuel of dross-celebrity, scandal and crime or fears of crime, especially during sweeps months when audience measurements are taken.

I tune out local TV news for the most part because of this. And I think this is a point worth remembering. I can be more selective in my use of media today than ever before. I filter out much that I consider trivial and not worth my time. And, of course, like everyone else, I still probably waste time in these media.

But that’s not new. I managed to do that even before new media came along. What about you?

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