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 firewood: 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.