Forget Information Overload: What If The Real Problem Is Information Underload

from the shift-your-perspective dept

For years, I’ve definitely been a believer in the idea that there’s information overload today. After all, there are so many new sources of information out there that of course one of the problems many people believe they face is that they simply can’t keep up. However, I may need to seriously rethink that concept after reading this article, pointed out by Clay Shirky and written by Mike O’Malley, which suggests we’ve got the problem backwards. The issue today isn’t information overload, but information underload. Here’s the basic example, arguing that people in the past had to know a hell of a lot more than we do today:

Here’s an image of pastoral life, taken early in the twentieth century in North Dakota. Rustic simplicity, except that the farmer in charge has labor management problems–who are these workers, how is he compensating them? He has to manage the horses–how is their health? Do they need feeding and watering? He’s got to get the harvested wheat stored properly: he’s checking the weather all the time–just imagine how much information is involved, in an age before reliable forecasts, in guessing the weather! He’s scanning the crop itself, to see how much he lost to insects or disease. He’s got a good idea of crop prices in Chicago and whether they’re trending up or down. The scene was information-dense, and if you click on the image, you can see how the original title frames the scene.

The modern farmer climbs into the air conditioned cab of a combine harvester, and turns on the radio. The radio fills the attention spaces left by, say, reading the weather signs or managing the workers or the animals.

Now, I would imagine that many modern farmers would take issue with some aspect of this simplification. There is still plenty of information that the modern farmer needs to be aware of, but it is a different level and a different type of information. But, to a certain extent, that is O’Malley’s point. The “information overload” we face today is of a very different nature than the information overload of the past, and that is that today’s information overload is often filling areas that are less about necessities:

So what appears to us as “too much information” could just be the freedom from necessity. I don’t have to worry about finding and cutting and storing fire?wood: I don’t even have to manage a coal furnace. That attention has been freed up for other things. What we see as “too much information” is probably something more like “a surplus of free attention.”

As a historian, I no longer have to spend hours scanning texts to find the smaller sets of information I need. They pop up quickly when I deal with digitized texts, and the search process is streamlined and automated much in the way a gas burner streamlines and automates a wood stove.

In the end, he suggests that our attention is pretty much constant, and if it’s not engaged in one thing (e.g., trying to predict the weather), it’ll get engaged in something else (e.g., reading up on some blog rant). It’s just the nature of the way that we work — but it’s not an indication that we’re actually dealing with information overload. I’m not sure I totally agree, but it is a different way of looking at the questions surrounding how we deal with the amount of information presented to us at any given time.

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Comments on “Forget Information Overload: What If The Real Problem Is Information Underload”

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Freak says:

heh . . .

He imagines such a farmer I doubt exists.

In such cases, where there isn’t enough info to accurately predict anything far ahead enough to matter, instead of searching for the optimal solution, people merely search for a satisfactory one.

You’d be surprised how much easier a satisfactory answer is than an optimal one, particularly on a farm. Some of the people back home don’t even know basic arithmetic . . . all they know is that more crop is better, and you need to take more money than you give.

Than again, maybe I’m jaded by the examples back home.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: heh . . .

“Than again, maybe I’m jaded by the examples back home.”
iWould have to agree.

My Stepfather, going on 81 this spring, born and raised on a farm, can predict weather better than any station/site iCan find.

When something gets broken, it is repaired. If it can’t be repaired, it is re-purposed. There is very little waste. iAm sure that at 80, he has a smaller life carbon footprint than most of the pre-teens of today.

He is a genius at utilizing what is at hand. Yet no one has ever said he ran a “haywire” operation. Because he fixed it to work and to last, not to just get by.

Information overload is a crock. A cop-out.

Want information overload? Go to a park, open your iiii. iDefy anyone to describe/list everything they can see.

Tips for the I/ME generation?
Learn to discern!

Then again, maybe iAm jaded by what iSee everyday.
(e.g. College Accounting students who can’t multiply/divide 100 by 10 without a calculator. Too much info my i)

Anonymous Coward says:

I also think the type of information matters. I seen on some

T.V. program that Taxi cab drivers statistically have the highest IQ’s (and that includes higher than doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc…) and the rational given is that directional processing requires very capable processing capabilities.

I also heard of a study showing that people who speak more than one language generally live several years longer.

out_of_the_blue says:

Ya done got yer head so full a ideas, ya dunno whatcha think.

Some famous wise guy (GB Shaw?) said that journalists can’t distinguish between a bicycle accident and the end of the world. And it’s true.

Because, basically, most people don’t have a few simple ideas that they *believe* all the way down, only a great mass of “facts” that are likely inaccurate, mixed with a deal of fantasy. Intelligence is a faculty that integrates knowledge — however, I’m already boring you. Point proved.

John E. Bredehoft (user link) says:

Also look at those gathering the information

I got here via a Louis Gray share on FriendFeed, and you certainly have an interesting thesis. But I wonder if the different ways that information is presented today need to be taken into account. The 20th century farmer got his information from a wide variety of sources. Today’s “knowledge worker” gets his or her information via very few information types – text, audio, and video. I can’t look at clouds or leaf buds or listen to birds to get information to do my job. Does the fact that most information today comes in these three formats help contribute to our sense of being overwhelmed? I doubt that the farmer said, “I have to look at several dozen clouds today!”

ECA (profile) says:

I would contend.

Can I suggest, that there are things we need to know, and MANY that we do not need to know.

The farmers of the past, SHARED.
If they needed help, it was given.
A worker Started at 1 farmers place and continued to the NEXT and NEXT, to get all the work done.
Much of the PAY to them was a living place, and food.

NOW days, you TRY to find something that will EQUAL PAY of the same work. YOU CANT.

Intelligence seems to be a LEARNED/SHARED experience. YOU LEARN what you need, and SHARE whats needed to teach others to HELP YOU…
In our current society, WE HIDE information and HOW things are done, for reasons MOST cant ascertain. Its all hidden under barrels of BS.

Now days SCHOOLS teach little in the form of WHAT is to come, and that you need to know.
Farms arent places for 12 year olds to LEARN to drive a truck(any more).
There USED to be TIME, to stop and THINK…To SEE things as they ARE/WERE/COULD BE…
NOW we are rushed and PUSHED to work, and NEVER get ahead.
Our society has been CHANGED from utilitarian/social(ist)/SHARING to a group of idiots TRYING to find VALUE in nothing.

After WWII, we had MANY come back from war, to find NO JOBS..Why? They had been replaced. by Women and Children to HELP the war and keep things running.. AFTER that point. SOME found an interesting aspect of this. When 2 persons WORKED they could get AHEAD of the rat race..they COULD afford a home, better food, MORE for the kids. EVEN the kids worked(until the late 60’s). And MORE could be had. NOW we NEED/HAVE TO HAVE 2 incomes to survive, and pay bills…WHY?
No answer.
Do things COST MORE??
no answer.
Do you have MORE time, NOW??
No answer.
Compare wages in EACH of the Brackets from LOW, MIDDLE, UPPER income brackets..WHICH has gone up the most?
no answer.
DO you make a compatible SUM as to your father?
no answer.
Do you have TIME to spend with your children?
no answer.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: I would contend.


Knowledge and information must be shared.
The problems we have tend to be from GROUPS HOLDING information or restricting it.
Kids and people are Information gatherers..we gain more as we learn.
the problem tends to be the CRAP we are teaching, and not giving students REAL knowledge, nothing to hold their interests.

Bradley Stewart (profile) says:

Information Overload-No Problem

for me. back in approx. 1993 when I first connected to Cable TV I was at first overwhelmed by my number of choices. In fact I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even watch my TV set for a couple of days. After that I just started inching into it and I had no problem at all. I am an Old Codger now and I didn’t even get my first computer until approx. five years ago. Though I had to go on a very steep learning curve because I didn’t grow up with these things I love using it. I love it so much I now have two of them at home. I believe a lot of people who have problems with an endless supply of information on any subject are people who have a lot of trouble sorting out fact from fiction. New tools or not they will still be lost or jump to often the wrong conclusions.

Bruce (profile) says:

It is not a problem.

I live in a farming area and talk to farmers every day. They still till the ground, plant seeds, grow crops, harvest crops, and repeat. They just do it more efficiently with better technology and more accurate information. Instead of a plow behind one ox, some have a 16 row strip-till machine worth $250,000 with GPS, AC and surround sound that tills more acres, more accurately, more quickly and more automatically. Instead of wondering if it will rain in two hours they wonder about next week. Instead of walking in the mud yelling Gee and Haw, they sit on their farm equipment, turn some knobs, pull some levers, and feed your families. Then, the modern farmer goes home turns on the cable or blu-ray or computer like the rest of us. The real quality of life difference is that the modern farmer is much more connected to society today due to, better roads, cell phones, wi-fi, broadband, satellite TV, etc. Bottom line is that a farmer’s life is still hard, but less hard in many ways, and much more like the rest of us. Information overload or underload is not an issue to a modern farmer any more than to you or I.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Information underload

Ah! Thank you! This is what I have been trying to say, but I have not been saying it well. This says it much better.
When I was a kid, adults did have an information overload (or perhaps a misinformation overload?). They had to concentrate hard on making a living, and making the living worthwhile, so “leisure time” activities, music, movies, etc., had to wait while the important things were done. They appreciated those things just as much, they just didn’t make the mistake of thinking those things were IMPORTANT in the grand scheme.
Today, people have lost their way – trivia is all that is important, because the important things are too easy.

Anonymous Coward says:

The point isn’t about farmers, its about information overload/underload for everyone. Farmers are the example, but don’t think it stops there.

Information has always been out there but today we have access to a lot more information. One commentator mentioned we have only 3 types of sources (text,video,audio)while in the past we had many more. This is false. We have more today than we did in the past. Now I can consider information from all over the world, from any source possible.

The trick today is knowing what information is important and what information to believe.

In the past information was held by very few people in the world. Most couldn’t even read. Today there are parents of sick children that know more about their childs medical condition and treatement than 99% of doctors on the planet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Heh, I think apples and oranges are being compared.

In the past humans had ears, eyes, noses, and other “sensory” methods. Those haven’t changed. There isn’t more information being retrieved by them then was in the past. Humans haven’t changed anatomically one bit.

The only different I would say information is now more specific. That is, people don’t need to “sense” that since X and X and Z and G is happening then I will happen. Instead, they “sensor” A and know I will happen.

This is at a cost of course, a monetary cost.

I think people will always “look at the past” and say, “Damn, it was good back then” without realizing that for society to move forward there needs to be a movement of money to motivate people to work – whether to pay off debt or do something.

SLK8ne says:

Still overloaded...

We’re still overloaded. The difference is that we are deluged with USELESS information. A farmer who studied the weather and could predict it based on observation was accessing information relevant to his life and profession.

Not so modern society. We are deluged with useless information that has no bearing on our lives. (Brittney Spears latest meltdown, Lindsay Lohan’s rehab episodes, assorted bull pucky about “stars” in Loonywood, etc. etc. et al ad infinitum) I don’t need to know what the weather is like in Siberia if you’re not going there. I mean think of just how much useless crap you have to wade through every day.

It’s not that we have too much info, there’s just 10 tons of manure mixed in with every pertinent piece of knowledge.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Still overloaded...

We are deluged with useless information that has no bearing on our lives. (Brittney Spears latest meltdown, Lindsay Lohan’s rehab episodes, assorted bull pucky about “stars” in Loonywood, etc. etc. et al ad infinitum) I don’t need to know what the weather is like in Siberia if you’re not going there. I mean think of just how much useless crap you have to wade through every day.

Funny thing though, I don’t wade through any of that crap, ever. How are you being deluged with this information, if you’re not seeking it out?

Mohan Arun L (user link) says:

The amount of information meant for others eyes has more or less been increasing in a geometric progression since the 1800s. This is even more true these days with the explosive growth of new age media outlets like the internet. The real issue is that people’s time and attention has now been freed up in such a way with the use of modern technology and delegation so they are able to seek and consume information outside of their own limited spheres. No wonder they think this is overloading.

What they are doing is in fact expanding their seekings beyond what they would otherwise have. Personally I am not interested in computing or technology advancements but the fact that I am exposed to it daily on the internet makes me seek and consider that as my information consumption, for want of a better alternative. What people really need is the skill to separate what matters to themselves and what is not relevant. The twist is that what is relevant now to us may not be relevant to us tomorrow. So our ‘filters’ are undergoing constant upgrades, revisions and updates based on our circumstances.

Donna Clayton Lloyd (profile) says:

Information Overload

I find that if I take in information with the question in mind– what response or action do I desire to take in my life today to this information– If it is important and I glean that answer and schedule the action— the information remains and is important. If not, it is processed and dumped — like empty calories and i’m ready for the next infusion. Choosing wise sources and making information mine for the using is what’s most important in the process of gleaning info.

Anonymous Coward says:

He just doesn’t get what a information worker nowadays work.

We need to produce “information” interpreted / digested from “information given by others” and give the “information” to the others. The layered fashion enables us to think deeper and without losting views from various angles (whether they make good use of this, or abusing this, is another story).

The writer also neglects how much we need to learn to make use of those information, how fast the type and forms of information evolves that we have to “learn hard” to prevent us be left behind.

darryl says:

Attention is constant !! really

“Here’s an image of pastoral life, taken early in the twentieth century in North Dakota”

Wrong, That would be a modern photopraph, taken of an Amish community. sorry, but this is certainly not an early twentieth century picture..

There is still plenty of information that the modern farmer needs to be aware of, but it is a different level and a different type of information.

Ok Mike, Like what ?? you do not think modern farmers scan their crops, look at their weather, you dont think he has to manage his assets, that he does not have to manage his harvest, or his storage system. You do not think he has to any longer worry about prices in new york ?


But the argu?ment about atten?tion here is that atten?tion is a constant?it just directs itself, when freed, to whatever?s avail?able. The arrival of online archives gives us ?sur?plus atten?tion.?

What the F$^%&, “it just directs itself, when freed, to whatever’s available”.. REALLY ???

Im amazed, that someone would say such a thing, or even think that is what happens.. Think about it, is that what happens with you ??

If you are focusing your attention on a subject.

If you attention ‘directs itself to something else, when freed, then you are not paying attention to the original subject. To WHATEVER’S AVAILABLE.. What.

I have SO MUCH information alailable to me, (ie the intenet) that “whatever is available” is far more than anyone could possibly pay attention too. So what is he saying, when you attention stops on a subject, your mind just randomly searches for more information to pay attention too.

This guy, the ‘historian’, considers attention as a constant “it just directs itself, when freed, to whatever’s available.”

That is the basis for this entire argument, but it is an untrue assumption, attention is NOT constant and it most certainly does not “just directs itself, when freed, to whatever’s available”.

Most if not ALL people have more control over their minds than that Mike.
Most people can choose what they pay attention too, and what they dont need to pay attention too, that is the basis of human intelligence.

The ability to filter, asses, process, reject, store or accept vast quantities of information.

That vast amount of information is now presented in an efficient form, as was stated the farmer still scans his fields, he still checks individual plants, he still measures and watches the weather on his farm.

But he also has each and efficient access to vast amounts of information that is allready processed for him, he can sit in the cab of his tractor, and with a GPS, and satellite communications can get real time satellite images of his farm from space, and real time national weather condition.

Does it take him a very long time to process that vast amount of information,, NO. that is the greatness of humans and information.

No amount of information is too much information, you are never overloaded, and there is not a significant underloading of information.

The only information that would be good, is accurate prediction information, for market prices, and weather and so on.

But there is certainly not too much information, there can never be too much, and humans are capable of sorting and grading information very quickly. Most people will instantly write off vast quantities of information because without even thinking about it they know it of no use.

If you concentrate on something, and your concentration is then freed from that task, you do not have “surplus attention” because you have more information.

This guy should stick to history, and Mike I dont know what you should stick too.

Its interesting how you allways just agree with the comments, and follow his mantra, without thinking too much about it yourself..

But if you feel that you attention needs to be directed by outside forces, and that you have a “surplus of attention” then it must suck to you like you..

Constantly asking people to tell you what to think and what to focus your concentration on !!!.

sure if I want to find out if it is going to raid here tomorrow I could gather terabytes of data from global weather gathering systems, study them very hard, and be overloaded with far too much information.

Or I can look up the local weather report, or watch the news, and find out what chance there is of rain tomorrow.

I must be one of the lucky ones that does not see information as overwhelming, being able to select the information I want to pay attention too, for me is easy.

I have no idea, and no one has explained to us what collecting fire wood or running a coal furnace has to do with attention and information?

It was not explained here or in the original article.

Somehow, if you have information you no longer have to light fires, split wood, or run coal furnaces anymore !!.

Really, so the information itself will heat your house, and burn your coal ?

So from that odd statment he states something like.

“therefore I do not have to use information to gather information”

Just as the act of split?ting and stack?ing fire?wood has become a delib?er?ately anachro?nis?tic act, so might the act of split?ting and stack?ing ref?er?ences become less nec?es?sary.

So just as stacking firewood has become anachronistic, so will gathering and collating information (splitting and stacking references) becomes less necessary.

What has replaced spliting and stacking wood ?

What has replaced a coal furnace ?

If you have to split and stack wood it is a necessary act, you need to have a pile of wood, providing you information is not going to run your fire over winter !

If you have a coal furnace that you need to run, then how is information going to free you of that task.

This guy should stick to history, or maybe bricklaying..

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Attention is constant !! really

Wrong, That would be a modern photopraph, taken of an Amish community. sorry, but this is certainly not an early twentieth century picture..

It’s amazing how consistently factually wrong you can be, Darryl.

The image is from the Library of Congress. Are you suggesting the Library of Congress is lying, and took a modern Amish community photo, and added it to its “1900 to 1909” collection under false pretenses?,gottscho,detr,nfor,wpa,aap,cwar,bbpix,cowellbib,calbkbib,consrvbib,bdsbib,dag,fsaall,gmd,pan,vv,presp,varstg,suffrg,nawbib,horyd,wtc,toddbib,mgw,ncr,ngp,musdibib,hlaw,papr,lhbumbib,rbpebib,lbcoll,alad,hh,aaodyssey,magbell,bbc,dcm,raelbib,runyon,dukesm,lomaxbib,mtj,gottlieb,aep,qlt,coolbib,fpnas,aasm,denn,relpet,amss,aaeo,mff,afc911bib,mjm,mnwp,rbcmillerbib,molden,ww2map,mfdipbib,afcnyebib,klpmap,hawp,omhbib,rbaapcbib,mal,ncpsbib,ncpm,lhbprbib,ftvbib,afcreed,aipn,cwband,flwpabib,wpapos,cmns,psbib,pin,coplandbib,cola,tccc,curt,mharendt,lhbcbbib,eaa,haybib,mesnbib,fine,cwnyhs,svybib,mmorse,afcwwgbib,mymhiwebib,uncall,afcwip,mtaft,manz,llstbib,fawbib,berl,fmuever,cdn,upboverbib,mussm,cic,afcpearl,awh,awhbib,sgp,wright,lhbtnbib,afcesnbib,hurstonbib,mreynoldsbib,spaldingbib,sgproto,scsmbib,afccalbib

Anita says:

Source overload

Perhaps it’s not the information itself but rather the ever-expanding list of sources – and for each new source we encounter we need to ingest just enough information to assess if it’s a valid source or not.

If your source is the sun, or the weather, or the blotches on an ear of corn, you learn from sources that are consistent, and generations of farmers before you can share their assessment of those sources as well.

If your source is a brand-new website that you read about on Tech Dirt, then you have to take in what you’ve read & also assess whether that website is useful to put into your personal library of sources. And we in the information fields do this assessment of new sources every single day. That’s where the overload comes in.

penstock (profile) says:

Attention is constant?

Attention may in fact be a constant here, but that only tells half the story. The other half is the comprehension and mental processing of the information we are presented. The human mind is like our muscles – it is a “use it or loose it” proposition. The mind must be ‘exercised’ and ‘expanded’ in order to be ready to utilize all of the information we are exposed to everyday. If a mind is allowed to become ‘semi-comatose’ from inactivity or ‘low-value’ information processing, it can atrophy and end up incapable of comprehending important information when it arises. For example, exposing the mind to excessive television entertainment, or relying too heavily on ‘sound-bites’ instead of detailed news reports.

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