Friday, May 18, 2012

The psychology behind information overload?

There is often discussion - sometimes initiated by me in a workshop - about information overload and how to deal with it. It seems apparent there are generational differences in how we deal with information; what is less examined is why these differences arise. While younger readers will probably have no idea what I'm about to describe, older readers may remember a time when information was difficult to locate.

The most vivid example for me is time spent as a kid looking through card catalogues in the library. (For those of you who have never done this, there are massive sets of small drawers with index size cards, where you physically search for the title or subject of the book you are looking for.) You would find the card of the book you thought was interesting, then walk over to the shelves, find the book, and open it up to see if there was anything relevant. Of course much of the time there was nothing of interest; sometimes there was; and sometimes this book would lead you to a new thought or another book, which meant walking back to the card catalogue, searching through the drawers again, and then walking out to the shelves. (As well, even if you found the index card for an interesting book, you didn't know if the book was in the library until you walked over to the shelves.)

For me, and I expect for many others, this produced a deep seated psychological belief that information is valuable, difficult to access, and in many cases scarce. Thus any information or information source that might be of value in the future should be cherished. The actions that stem from this belief include trying to keep track of all the information flowing into my life, which is certainly not possible. I am a member of several LinkedIn groups, receive a number of email newsletters, as well as print magazines and newspapers. I have now come to accept that there are times - especially when I am very busy - that I may miss something I would perceive to be of value. I balance this with the hope that I will likely be able to locate it again at some point in the future if it truly is important.

I expect those who have grown up with the Internet don't have these filters about information, and that probably makes them better at dealing with the volume of information.

 If there is a downside to relying on Internet searching for information it is a potential loss of context and history, since corporations, governments, and people can instantly change what they have posted. The past can be overwritten by posting new news, which can then dominate search results. As George Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The natural aging of physical books in a library maintains that historical record, and ensures that history can't be re-written very easily.

 For those of my generation, my advice is to examine your filters about information. Are you operating in the Internet age with a "card catalogue" mental model?

For those of the Internet generation, my advice is to be careful about the source of your information. With the abundance of information, it is sometimes harder to find good quality information, and revision of history becomes easy.

Good Thinking!

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