Information Overload

Abundance of Information

Headlines such as “Every two days we create as much information as we did up to 2003” suggest that we live in an age of information abundance. Admittedly, it depends on how you define what constitutes information; information can include all user-generated information that contains little new information. Nevertheless, regardless of how you define information many of us feel overwhelmed when we search for information.

Contrary to common belief, in most times more information is not better or gives better solutions. This means that the way we search for and use information is becoming more important than the information itself. Information is valuable if you lack information or there is a gap in the information, whereas creativity and thinking skills are valuable when you are having an abundance of information. Creativity is also valuable when there is a lack of information.

Today, there is often affluency in information and to gain some idea of the amount of information that is available let us consider the following examples. In 2000, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey started and during the first few weeks, that telescope in New Mexico collected more data than had been collected during the entire history of astronomy. An indication of how quickly the amount of data that can be collected can change can be seen in the prediction that in 2016, a successor the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope might acquire the same amount of data every five days.  It took ten years to analyse the 3 billion base pairs to decode the first human genome, this can now be achieved in one week.

The examples suggest that the amount of digital information is rapidly increasing. Ten years ago, computer scientists talked about kilobytes and megabytes. Now data is measured in terabytes, petabytes, exabytes, zettabytes, and even yottabytes – each byte is a thousand times bigger than the last. Scientists may have asked for the information and they may have decided how they are going to use the data. Yet it shows the amount of data that it is possible to collect – mind blowing amount of data. Today we are exposed to and receive large amounts of data that we may not have asked for or do not want. When we search for information, we find a large amount of data that are often not evaluated or checked. Thus finding the information that we need to solve a problem or generate ideas are increasingly becoming more difficult.

What is the Problem?

It might be a small consolation that any frustration is not the fruit of information technology, that there are more people who interact with information, or people who have access to gadgets and technology. The amount of books that was written in the 1550s was so large that the Italian writer Anton Francesco Doni complained that he did not even have time to read the title of the books. The amount of information is not the problem rather it is how we choose to manage data. Despite tools to share and capture all information, it is becoming more difficult to make sense of the data. Training people to interpret data search for and use information is increasingly becoming a concern not only for sciences but also for people in industry, government, and art.

The question is what sort of training and where can you find this training. We suggest that thinking skill would have to be a component in a course training people to interpret information. We could also design systems were we are learning as we retrieve information. Today librarians know less than there former colleagues about books – they do know about several other things such as maintaining websites and blogs.  Previously, when a librarian was asked for a book on a subject, she/he went to a card index box. She picked out a card, looked at it, and concluded that it was the wrong card. Then she took out another card, and this process continued until she found the right card. Every time she learnt more about the books in the library. Nowadays a librarian types the subject in an automatic system, and the title of the book appears on the screen.

Creativity, Preparation and Blink

Percy Shelley said that “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.” This quote highlights using poetry as a filter. Are there other filters and methods that can be used and explored to help us extract knowledge and understanding from data and information? One approach is to make quick decisions and to ignore information. More information is not necessarily better. In the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking the authorMalcolm Gladwell says that we have a skill to “thin-slice” what is important and to find patterns based on only thin slices of experiences. He suggests that we can use limited information to reach a conclusion. This approach may be suitable in emergencies where quick decisions need to be made. Nevertheless, it can lead to decisions being made without using our thinking skills to search both for available information and to look for gaps in the available information.

Another approach is to ignore information. However, ignoring information simple for the sake that there is an abundance of information is not a satisfactory solution. In design thinking, there are specifications and constraints and it is about “what can be”. This approach may be fruitful to use when dealing with information – what can the information be rather than what it is. Thus, a creative approach to information may provide a solution to the contraction in the suggestion that you can reduce information overload without missing relevant information. A diverse approach was a central aspect of Elinor Ostrom’s work. She found that one-size-fits-all approach to solving problem rarely works. Putting all our eggs in one basket may not be a fruitful approach.  Diversity may lead to a more robust solution to problem. Similarly, a simple collection of a lot of information from one source or area may lead to simple solutions to complex problems – chances are that we are missing vital information. Thinking and planning before searching for information is vital. A creative and flexible approach to the search of information is something that is rarely highlighted. Often the focus is on what we should do with the data.

Using the Internet for searching for information can be compared to using random input (search engines filters what they feed you, depending upon your earlier searches, but you could chose a random number and search for that website on different search engines). Some websites often appear as the first ten options but predicting the other choices is more difficult. Some information and ideas that we found on these websites may surprise us.  The first step may be to decide criteria for what information that is suitable. Yet using inspiration from more random source material is one way to deal with lots of information about a subject. So how does this lead to less overload? A limited use of random inspiration may prevent us from gathering as much information as possible. We hope to enhance our chances by gathering data. Using random inspiration and thinking skills to extract concepts and ideas helps to diverse our collection of information. We focus on gathering diverse information rather than a narrow slice of all the available information.

It is tempting when we find information that does not neatly fit into a predetermined idea to ignore it. Many of us would ignore the idea to search for information about curing heart diseases in the Middle Ages when the goal is to find a cure for heart disease. Ignoring information is not a major  problem if you have a defined goal, such as finding a cure for a heart disease. But lack of goal may lead to information overload. You may miss information when you set an information goal, but the real problem is often not the information goal setting rather  that  you do not carefully consider the questions that you are exploring. Thus, it is important to define your goal before you start to collect information.. Yet ideas and concepts can be found  when thinking skills are applied to cures for heart disease in the Middle Ages. A quick search for inspiration can provide us with material that we later can use to form new concepts and to develop concepts. This may appear as we are getting more information to deal with but the idea is to limit the search while spreading out the search.  Ideas are easy to grasp and test, while concepts are at a higher level of abstraction. We will explore ways to extract concepts in a blog post later.

Photo: “Data Transfering Concept” by rajcreationzs

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