Why we should care about information overload

Tom Davenport writes that no one cares about information overload anymore. His main thesis appears to be that because no one turns off their phone in meetings, tunes their email filters or turns off their email alerts, that means that information overload is now unimportant. He then tries to conflate that with the aspects of information flow that make turning these things off difficult, i.e. our addiction to the receipt of new and exciting bits of information.

Tom has basically got everything the wrong way round. Information overload still matters, and that few people do something about it should be cause for concern and not a reason to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is ok.

The problem is one of those nasty wicked problems that change shape as you try to solve them. There is a complex interplay between the tools we use to communicate online, our physiological responses to incoming data, our expectations of other people’s expectations of our response to incoming communications, and cultural pressures that cause us to create and disseminate information in specific ways.

This is difficult territory. You can’t just tell people to turn off their email alerts and expect that to do the trick – although I certainly do recommend that as one action to take. Beating the physiological responses to incoming information is going to take a lot of thought and experimentation, but it’s the culture that’s going to be hardest to figure out. How do we change the way that people relate informationally to one another so that we have a healther information landscape?

I don’t have answers to that. But I do know that pretending information overload is an insignificant problem is not a constructive way to deal with it.

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