Information Overload

We live in an ecosystem of hyper-information. In an extraordinarily short period of time we have moved from scarcity to ubiquity. The result has been unprecedented information access. It has also become not just overwhelming but debilitating.

Too. Much. Information.

Or, to be more accurate: Too. Little. Synthesis.

The challenge of literacy isn’t our ability to crank out more stuff, it’s our inability to process it, to interpret it, and to make any use of it. In the early days of the Internet (circa 1998), which now seem quaint in terms of information availability, the metaphor was “drinking from a fire hose.”

Lyman and Varian, in How Much Information? 2003, determined that 5 exabytes of new information was stored in 2002. They answer the question How big is five exabytes? with:

“If digitized with full formatting, the seventeen million books in the Library of Congress contain about 136 terabytes of information; five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in 37,000 new libraries the size of the Library of Congress book collections.”

However, they also calculated the flow of information (e.g. telephone, radio, TV, Internet). Here the new information flowed in 2002 amounted to 18 exabytes. According to Pingdom, the Internet monitoring company, there were 500 million websites in 2011. Of these ~350 million were added within the last 12 months. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, has said that we create as much information in two days as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. International Data Corporation estimates that the world’s total information will increase to 2.7 zettabytes in 2012. A zettabyte is a billion terabytes.

While estimates of how much information is in the world are entertaining if questionable, they do illustrate the magnitude of what we are up against.

We have invented a technology that exceeds our capacity to use it. What to do?

Our short term, working memory is overwhelmed by an onslaught of information, experiences, and distractions of all sorts. Is our “stone-age brain”, as Torkel Klingberg calls it (The Overflowing Brain, 2009), able to manage? Are we Cro-Magnon humans dazed and confused in a world our brains are poorly adapted to deal with? Klingberg, a cognitive neuroscientist from the Karolinska Institute, says no but we do have to learn how to process information in a more thoughtful, aware, and attentive manner.

Danny Hillis (of Thinking Machines), wants to reinvent the architecture of the Internet to help solve this problem, he calls it the “knowledge web:”

“if humans could contribute their knowledge to a database that could be read by computers, then the computers could present that knowledge to humans in the time, place and format that would be most useful to them. The missing link to make the idea work was a universal database containing all human knowledge, represented in a form that could be accessed, filtered and interpreted by computers. One might reasonably ask: Why isn’t that database the Wikipedia or even the World Wide Web? The answer is that these depositories of knowledge are designed to be read directly by humans, not interpreted by computers. They confound the presentation of information with the information itself.”

Currently the Internet is designed for people; web pages are viewed, read, and listened to by people. That’s the problem. People. We are very poor information processors; much of the information on the web is missed, poorly understood or ignored by us.

The emerging “Internet of Things” is based on ubiquitous sensors, embedded systems, and the networking of their continuous data flows. The growing data storm is already well beyond our capacity to comprehend. The solution for Hillis is to design the next generation Internet for computers; computers as creators and consumers of the information. It is an Internet designed to be used by machines. It wouldn’t make much sense to us, and that’s fine, it isn’t supposed to. The “Internet-for-computers” Internet will encode, transmit, correlate, and synthesize information in ways that are machine friendly and machine accessible.

We should remember that information overload isn’t a new phenomenon. We have been here before. And the results are instructive.

Too Much To Know & Too Big To Know

Ann Blair, in Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Era (2010), recounts the information exploration of the early modern period (1500-1800). Gutenberg had launched a revolution and books were, in their terms, flooding the market. Too many. Too much to know.

The result was considerable anxiety about the abundance of books and their negative impact of civilization. Blair quotes Adrien Baillet from his 1685 Jugemens des sçavans:

“We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”

Blair identifies the many solutions developed during this period (encyclopedias, commonplace books, etc.) to respond to the overload challenges and concludes by saying:

“these works devised innovative methods of managing textual information in an era of exploding publications to which our own methods of reading and processing information are indebted.”

As information increased, new methods and tools emerged. Literacy is about change. It, and its containers, have evolved to respond to the challenges of the time. In a provocative view of epistemology in the network era, David Weinberger, in Too Big To Know (2011), extrapolates this even further:

“The real limitation isn’t the capacity of our individual brains but that of the media we have used to get past our brains’ limitations.”

In this world of abundance, knowledge is not a library but a playlist tuned to our present interests. It is not eternally truthful content but subject matter good enough for our current task. It is not a realm but a path that gets us where we’re going.”

By encouraging us to move from “long-form thinking” (book shaped) to “web-form thought” (network shaped), Weinberger identifies the book as “such a bad fit for the structure of knowledge it’s intended to represent and enable.” He argues that

“Long-form thinking looks the way its does because books shaped it that way. And because books have been knowledge’s medium, we have thought that that’s how knowledge should be shaped … But now that our medium can handle far more ideas and information, and now that it is a connective medium (ideas to ideas, people to ideas, people to people), our strategy is changing. And that is changing the very shape of knowledge.”

As with the information innovations arising in the early modern era, trying to understand the complexity of a networked epistemology will require new tools and techniques. A new literacy.

We have created a technology (the alphabet) which we are now unable to manage.


15 Responses to “Information Overload”

  1. Pam November 3, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    There is a lot in this chapter that I agree with. The quote from Danny Hillis is one: “if humans could contribute their knowledge to a database that could be read by computers, then the computers could present that knowledge to humans in the time, place and format that would be most useful to them.”
    This is already happening, the most advanced model being IBM’s Watson. But I don’t think this renders literacy obsolete. I think computers can sift and sort through information and knowledge, but will ultimately still present information to humans in the form of the written word. The writing will just be more succinct and effective.
    Further, Twitter’s 140 character limit, and the TLDR (too long didn’t read) summation for long notes demonstrate that we are devising ways for the written word to satisfy information needs in our evolving structure of knowledge (ie. adhering to our short attention spans). Words in association with images and videos are even better – but I just can’t see the words going away completely.
    (TLDR: with technology written messages will become shorter and more succinct, but writing won’t disappear.)

    • Patrick Molicard-Chartier November 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

      Pam, you’re right. There is a lot to agree with in the chapter. The quotation you pulled is something I agree with too.

      Maybe we’re already feeling the presence of post-literacy and the way in which we communicate via reading and writing need to be adjusted so they don’t face obsolescence? Perhaps Twitter is a preemptive strike to keep traditional literacy relevant in a much more competitive field of extending information online? One thing with Twitter though, is it isn’t necessarily preserving traditional literacy many new short forms, contractions and symbols are used in the 140 character allotment.

      Like you, I think words might not disappear completely but they will compete for the users attention along with photos, symbols, videos and other post-literate tools.

  2. Jeff Penfold November 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    I recently read a book called ‘Libraries of the Future’ by JCR Licklider. What was interesting for this project was he was writing the the mid sixties but was already concerned about the use of the book as a store of information. He like the printed page, it was easy to use and contained what he felt was a manageable amount of information. What he objected to was the book, he felt that by binding all those pages together you made it much harder to access the information the pages contained.

    This made me go back to other comments about this project and think about the idea that it may not be post literacy we should be thinking about but post book. In that sense we are already on the way there, you can see this with the Internet (although not with ebooks as they so replicate the form of paper books I believe they suffer from the same limitations that Licklider noted). Thinking about post book then puts me on the path to post literacy, once we start processing information routinely in another form than the book, then perhaps we start noticing the limitations of the written word as a means of communicating information.

    For me I keep coming back to the idea that as long as I am continuing to use books as a means of processing information (even though I am obviously using the Internet as well) it will be impossible to see past it to what post literacy might be. Only if I abandon the book completely might the transition be possible and frankly I’m not ready to make that leap yet.

    • Michael Ridley November 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Your post reminded me of something James Gleick (author of The Information) said in the New York Times, referring to the book (or any other printed object) as a talisman:

      “An object like this – a talisman – is like the coffin at a funeral. It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on.”

      • Jeff Penfold November 15, 2012 at 11:50 am #

        It is an interesting piece. I wonder if the appeal of signed copies of books is related to this idea of a talisman. Often I talk to people who are excited to have signed copies of books they haven’t read. Is it knowing that at some moment the author held this exact copy of the book? It seems the book has an appeal and value that transcends the informational content but still is something more than simply having the signature of the famous author.

    • bdleaf December 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

      Jeff, your comment about how as long as you are “continuing to use books as a means of processing information it will be impossible to see past it” intrigued me. Is it that you continue to use books, or that as a cultural artifact, it is in entrenched into your psyche? Sometimes I see literacy as how people engage with different forms of information. It sounds you still find it a compelling way to engage with information (as do I), but I wonder if that’s mutually exclusive from understanding post literacy.

      • Jeff Penfold December 5, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

        You may be right that it would not prevent us from seeing post literacy. I have tended to focus on the resistance to post literate tools but even among those who deeply value reading and writing there will be some who embrace the new post literate tools wholeheartedly.

  3. Jessica November 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    Jeff – I really like a lot of what you have to say here, and frankly do not have too much to add. Like you, I am also not ready to “abandon the book,” so that I might successfully be able to engage with a post-literate future.

    After I read your post I went and tried to find a Guardian Books podcast that I had heard, which discusses authors reinventing their e-books – making them more interactive, visually interesting, etc, but alas I cannot remember the title and it is lost to me. Really interesting idea that authors themselves might be the people that are moving us towards post-literacy, though.

    In my search I did find an article about the e-book and how it has transformed publishing, and while it essentially agrees that an e-reader is just a lighter book, it is a fun read. I do like something that the author says : “The typewriter had not eliminated the fountain pen, nor the motor car the horse.” I think that that is how I currently view post-literacy. I can imagine a world where visual language is not dominant, but I cannot imagine it disappearing altogether.

    • Jeff Penfold November 14, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

      Thanks for the link, it is a good story. I hope I didn’t come off negative towards ebooks, my day job involves selling the Kobo and I hear all the time from people that once they go a Kobo they started reading more.

      Thinking about this has actually made me wonder if ebooks are getting people to read more has the technology in some way helping to preserve literacy rather than moving to post literacy? Have to admit this didn’t occur to me before today.

      • Camille November 16, 2012 at 11:14 am #

        You raise a really good point, Jeff. I can absolutely see how e-books reinforce literacy in people’s lives instead of remove it from them. I get really excited when I buy a book. I love books and I love book stores. Technology? Not so much. But I know that I will read more once I have an e-book. Since I take the subway everywhere, it just makes sense. I am constantly leaving my book at home because it’s too heavy/too big and at rush hour there’s literally not enough space for me to hold up a big book. The e-book is such an attractive option. Even though an e-book will be better for me, I still can’t give up on “real” books. Books in paper form seem more authentic. It is a ridiculous notion considering they are the same words! I constantly get assured by friends that I will love the e-reader once I buy one, and I remain hopeful. My only worry is that I will go download-happy and not actually read the books I buy. Sort of like all the apps and music I download and don’t really appreciate. I guess I will find out after Christmas when I buy one as a gift to myself!

  4. Caitlin M November 15, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    Ridley describes Danny Hillis’ suggestion that we should restructure the internet. Rather than directly accessing it we could have computers access the information and then synthesize it and present it to us. Personally, I find this terrifying!

    It seems like often the real creativity and originality involved in “discovering” new knowledge and ideas comes from the way that we integrate and synthesize existing information. We don’t think up things in a vacuum, we combine existing bits of information and ideas in new ways. Often this process seems almost accidental. I remember hearing that a famous thinker (unfortunately I can’t remember who) used to select what book to read next by moving diagonally across the stacks in a library! This helped (him?) to combine ideas in original ways.

    If computers were to play such a central role in our research and synthesis of information we might seriously limit the development of new ideas. We might also lose or limit our individual perspectives and even our individuality. If we were always provided with the same conclusions and interpretations maybe we would all start to think the same way. Over time, given the same conclusions, we might begin to make the same decisions, and have the same experiences, too!

    I also wonder if interpretation, analysis and synthesis of information might be like a muscle. Perhaps if we stopped performing these activities for ourselves, or performed them less frequently, we would lose the ability and skill to do so.

  5. Julie April 30, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Is reading necessarily the object of literacy? Is processing information (as opposed to creating information) the goal of most literate people now? In a podcast at, Deborah Brandt says, “We have always assumed that writers would be few and readers would be many. But there’s lots of evidence now that writers are becoming many.” Her research suggests that writing is increasingly the aspect of literacy in which people are most interested in engaging.

    In that light, changes in literate practices matter not as much for information overload as for community: The old models of writing are based in audience awareness and the need to engage with readers, but is that need to appeal and be civil to an audience different if the expectation is that few, if any, will read what we write?

    • Michael Ridley April 30, 2013 at 10:46 am #

      Thanks for the comment Julie. Excellent observation. Visible language (the alphabet) assumes certain roles: writer & reader in particular. As you note, those roles (and expectations) are being challenged. I think they might disappear in a post-literate environment.The distinction between writer and reader is based on the technology (the alphabet) not on the essence of communication. Interesting issues.

  6. Autumn Shuler August 30, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    This chapter reinforces an idea I have all the time — I am never going to be able to experience everything I want.

    With all the content available to me, much of which is wonderful, I find it difficult to pick and choose what to interact with. It’s like being at a buffet where the more I eat, the hungrier I become.

    The reason I believe this flood of information is so overwhelming isn’t so much that I’m just experiencing it, it’s also that I’m trying to synthesize everything. I love finding patterns in information and linking things together, and now I’m overwhelmed by the potential to make more patterns than I can handle.

  7. Ashley September 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    I do not think that I could say this better than how David Weinberger did in Too Big To Know (2011). We are still teaching and trying to be literate to what was the cutting edge years ago. We are moving into a newer age of literacy, the 2.0 alphabet, where knowledge is changing and how we access and learn is too. Knowledge today is not what it was even 10 years ago. We have finally surpassed what our brains are capable of, but we do not know how to harness what we have created and synthesize all of that information.

    We are so overwhelmed by a ton of information- there is so much content to read, look at, listen to, we cannot even fathom that amount. We become a gauntlet of useless information just regurgitating facts and not knowing the why or how behind them. We find that we know something but have not taken the time to understand the information that we have been given.

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