• On information overload

    by  • October 10, 2009 • Everything Else • 0 Comments

    I have information overload. Again.

    Here’s why this is an increasing problem for organizational navigators. If there a billion people with access to publication online or in print, there are one thousand “one in a million” intelligences who’s thinking you can access.

    Assume you dedicate an hour to each one. That’s 25 working weeks of eight one-in-a-million thinkers per day. Imagine trying to watch the 500 or so videos from TED one after another, five days a week, nine-to-five. For six months.

    This is our modern information environment – the simple fact is that we never used to have access to this quantity of profound intelligence, and now we swim in an infinte and increasingly unfiltered sea of it. I can’t comprehend what a one-in-a-million thinker has to say to me in an hour in most cases and many of them are hours – or decades – of work to even get a basic appreciation of. If you take Buckminster Fuller, Amory Lovins, Mahatma Gandhi and Brian Eno and try and really understand what they are saying… Music for Airports doesn’t use most of the frequencies which are in human voices so you can talk over it easily… energy efficiency is the cheapest form of energy generation… be the change you want to be in the world… you know what I’m saying here.

    I’ve tried to manage my mind’s instinct to strive for global understanding in three ways. Firstly, I avoid book-length work like the plague – I read book reviews and discussions about ideas in preference to full texts. I focus on the big problems rather than seas of detail. I try to find synthesists and follow them.

    But even these strategies come up short against the sea. This Zizek guy all my friends are into? Deleuze and Guattari? My brain is not up to this. Digital manufacturing? Nanobio revolution? Evolution of scholastic traditions in Islam? It all just sort of zooms by me.

    The technique I’ve found that helps me rest is focusing on where I am going, and looking at the information landscape to identify a path to my goals. I can’t get the entire map, but I can probably identify a set of knowledge waypoints which if I proceed from one to the next will put me where I want to be in the world. Moving from trying to form a map of all knowledge to identifying a route through the terrain of knowing to put me where I want to be reliably leaves me feeling that I know what I need to do next.

    What more can we ask for, really?


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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