#CityLIS Student Perspectives: Information Overload

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is written by current CityLIS student, Ed Newton. Ed considers the effects of information overload and how information specialists can counter it.

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In any waking moment, indoors or outdoors, “..our eyes and brain are transacting millions of photons in a fraction of a second,” (Davis 2011, p.45) yet ordinarily we do not feel burdened by any notion of information overload (IO). What, then, is the concept of IO?

Reviewing the literature, it is possible to draw out a recurring theme; Bawden and Robinson (2009, p.183) refer to the writer of Ecclesiastes who noted that, “of making many books there is no end,” Hemp (2009) dates the issue to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg – and we can follow this through its development to the proliferation of scientific publications in the 19th century – while later yet, Novak (2012) posits that when considering IO, one could do no better than beginning with Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock – as Davis (2011, p.46) notes, this is before the advent of the internet, but yet, “..can be used to describe what many experience at times.”

So, we see that IO is a negative thing; “dark side”, “fear”, “death”, “shock”; literature titles alone paint a very grim picture. We may also observe that IO is rooted in the history of recorded information. Benselin and Ragsdell (2015, p.285) note that Levy gives the cause of IO as, “the recent explosion of information technologies”, and place this alongside Karvalics’ claim that, “by the mid-2000s, the majority of the world was part of an information society”; however, we have seen that it is not a modern idea. Indeed, Floridi (2010, p.3) argues that, “..humanity has been living in various kinds of information societies since the Bronze Age, the era that marks the invention of writing…”, thus equating “information” with writing, or the recording of information. Whilst not a modern concept, it is a valid argument that IO has been exacerbated by the technological revolution of the 20th century, and it is this that we will consider in the main.

IO can be related to the communication chain as proposed by Robinson (2009, p.582), and in particular the creation and use of information. “Information overload” necessarily suggests two things; that, for any given task, there is too much information – in other words that too much has been created – and that it cannot be used effectively; the communication chain has broken down.

Why might IO be considered a myth? Could the concept of IO be an invention of those involved in the information field? Bawden and Robinson (2009, p.181) suggest this might be the case. It would follow that no solution need be proposed, or at any rate it would only be of use to those who propose that IO is an issue, and not have any real-world value. Davis (2011, p.46) suggests that IO is defined in a modern context as cyclical; that IO is experienced because of the sheer volume of information available, but also that we have the sheer volume of information because of IO: it is both “cause and effect”, a definition that leads one to treat the existence of IO with suspicion.

In a modern – computerised – context, is there, for any one task, too much information to process effectively? Shirky (2008) comments that, after the invention of the printing press, publishers, in order to make money, became quality filters; if printed books go unbought, unread, there are financial ramifications. Moreover, he continues, since the advent of the world wide web – one might say specifically in its Web 2.0 incarnation – the cost of publishing diminishes exponentially and so the quality filter is lost. In essence, the issue is twofold; there is too much information and its quality has been reduced.

One strand of this argument might be countered by considering how information is accessed via the internet: through a search engine. “Algorithm” is now a much-maligned word. It is an information filter, yet it does not serve the same purpose as, say, an e-mail spam filter. Pariser (2011) demonstrated that Facebook filtered the information which made its way to his newsfeed, and that Google displayed markedly different search results when two users googled “Egypt”.

Floridi (2016) describes such filtering as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and argues, “..we are what we google”; put another way, Google provides us with information it thinks we wants, and thus shapes our selves. If this is true, then surely IO becomes irrelevant.

However, in these cases it is not that there is too much information, but that access to it is restricted, or even denied. For a user who wants to discover the wealth of information available through the internet, one might well employ the method suggested by Buckland (2008, p.81); choose a likely useful source of information, “drill down” into it, exhaust it, and then choose another. Such rigorous research methods are likely to filter out irrelevant information in a much more meaningful way than any of social media’s algorithms; the researcher decides what is relevant and what is not, rather than AI.

Studies have shown that IO has real-world effects. Hemp (2009) and Benselin and Ragsdell (2015, p.285) cite research indicating IO costs the US economy $900 billion a year, and causes psychological stresses amongst workers. However, if, as suggested, IO is a symptom of a breakdown of the communication chain, between creation and use, it follows that it is a problem that can be remedied; it suggests one or more of the other chain links – dissemination, management, organisation/retrieval – is not working as it should, and this can be addressed.

Focusing on organisation and retrieval, Koltay (2017, p.773), with a rather refreshing change of terminology, focuses on the bright side of information, and suggests a two-pronged strategy to alleviating IO; first, by focusing on improving information architecture, and second, in much the same way Shirky laments the lack of quality control in the modern era of internet self-publication, by promoting a programme of information literacy (or digital literacy; the line of demarcation between the two is blurred at best) which would allow information-seekers to themselves become the “gatekeepers” of information.

We can conclude that, far from being a myth, or the invention of an information specialist, or a “fashionable concern” (Bawden and Robinson 2009, p.186) – a fad to be forgotten with the passage of time – information overload is very real and a recurrent theme throughout the history of recorded information, and is closely associated with any technological advance in recording information. Moreover, with improved information architecture – specifically one might think of the web’s latest incarnation, the semantic web – information specialists, and the everyday user, have an opportunity to help facilitate better organisation of information, and so, hopefully, downgrade information overload’s status from hard reality to a myth.

References

Bawden D and Robinson L, (2009), The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies, Journal Of Information Science, 35(2) 180-191
Benselin JC and Ragsdell G, (2015), Information overload: the differences that age makes, Journal of Librarianship And Information Science, 48(3) 284-297
Buckland MK, (2008), Reference library service in the digital environment, Library & Information Science Research, 30(2) 81-85
Davis N, (2011), Information overload, reloaded, Bulletin Of The American Society For Information Science And Technology, 37(5) 45-9
Floridi L, (2010), Information: a very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Floridi L, (2016), The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Schirn Magazine, available at: http://www.schirn.de/en/magazine/context/the_self_fulfilling_prophesy/ (date accessed: 9/11/2017)
Hemp P, (2009), Death by information overload, Harvard Business Review, available at: https://hbr.org/2009/09/death-by-information-overload (date accessed: 9/11/2017)
Koltay T, (2017) The bright side of information: ways of mitigating information overload, Journal Of Documentation, 73(4) 767-775
Novak P, Information overload: a recurring fear, (2012) BBC, available at: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120306-information-overload-fears (date accessed: 9/11/2017)
Pariser E, Beware online “filter bubbles”, (2011), TED Talk, available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles/transcript#t-13652 (date accessed: 9/11/2017)
Robinson L, (2009), Information science: communication chain and domain analysis, Journal Of Documentation, 65(4) 578-591
Shirky C, (2008), It’s not information overload: it’s filter failure, Web 2.0 Expo, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LabqeJEOQyI (date accessed: 9/11/2017)

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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