Digital Information Overload

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Narrative 1: Distracting Gadgets and Attention Deficits in Schools

From "When Gadgets Get in the Way", by Lisa Guernsey,The New York Times, Aug. 19, 2004

Now that computers are a staple in schools around the country, perhaps the machines should come with a warning label for teachers: 'Beware: Students may no longer hear a word you say.'

Today 80 percent of public schools have high-speed Internet access in at least one classroom, according to Market Data Retrieval, an education research company. Among colleges, 69 percent have classroom Internet access and 70 percent have wireless networks. Students start tapping away behind laptop lids with no way for professors to know if they are taking notes or checking Hotmail.

'I've never been in a lecture where I haven't seen someone checking their e-mail when they were supposed to be doing stuff,' said Bill Walsh, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instant messages, news tickers and games like solitaire beckon too.

Joe Huber, the technology coordinator for the public schools in Greenwood, Ind., said that teachers routinely complain about gadget-distraction among students. 'It is a huge problem with anyone who teaches with any kind of technology,' he said.

Even in rooms without computers or Internet access, students have other devices to draw their attention away from academics. Cellphones may be prohibited at many schools, but that doesn't stop students from putting them on vibrate and trading text messages under their desks. That is, when they aren't fiddling with their organizers or music players.
Teachers have started to fight back. All agree that the best weapon against attention deficit is the same one that worked before the dawn of computers: strong teaching. But new strategies don't hurt, either. Some teachers have found, in fact, that the best defense against the distractions of technology is other technology. Here are five examples of teachers who are fighting fire with fire.

Counter-strategies adopted by teachers:

  • use of (interactive) games in classroom
  • threat to reboot without saving assignment
  • classroom layout that allows teacher to watch students' laptops screens (MIT)
  • remote controlled student computers, e.g. with option to "freeze" operations when teacher explains

Narrative 2: Reliability of New Intermediaries

Narrative 3, from Digital Information Explosion

Elizabeth stares at her screen. It feels a bit like an extension of herself, if she’s honest about it. Or like a best friend. Especially during a boring, boring class.

She’s pretending to pay attention to a truly stultifying lecture on Justice. It’s part of the core curriculum and something she more or less has to take in her first year of college. The teacher is droning on.

IM from Elizabeth to Keisha, a friend from Second Life who is taking the class as a distance student: “u watching this? This guy is just mailing it in, K. What a waste.” Then: “I wonder if he thinks about the fact that we pay for this.”

Keisha: “Yeah, I’m watching – sort of.” Send. New entry: “If u can call it that. Reading blogs, mainly, tho.”

E: “Me 2. Did u see Wonkette today? They had that sicko Saddam video up.”

K: “Can’t believe they did that. Can’t believe he’s dead.”

E: “Yeah. Justice, huh? This guy should be talking about whether Saddam got justice. Iraq: Got Justice?”

K: “Hey, that’s a good line. You should blog it.”

E: “Already did. Check your feed. Here, don’t bother, click on this." She sends a link to her blog.

K: “Did you see what Drudge had on it?”

E: “Nope will check.”

K: “L8r – hey, trying to tune in to class here for a minute or two before it ends… After all, we’re paying for this, right?”

Narrative 4: Exploring the news with Digg

20-year-old Digital Native Chung Sung Woo describes trying out the social news site in this blog post:

It was my first time to visit, which is the most famous website recently. How does it work? I mean, what are visitors doing in this website? Besides, why people love this website? With these questions, I decided to become a member of this site.

Information Overload: Past and Present

Annotations in the Gutenberg Bible
Ann Blair, a Professor of History at Harvard University, cites examples of information overload as early as the 13th century. Scholars became concerned with the inability to read the multitude of texts which were available, a situation which Gutenberg’s printing press only escalated. In the mid sixteenth century, Konrad von Gesner forewarned that the "overabundance of books" may be "confusing" or "harmful." In an effort to better organize the sea of books, he invented the bibliography. His Bibliotheca universalis detailed “all of the writers who had ever lived and the titles of all their works.” (Rozek, 2007)

Inventors and writers soon developed "knowledge management" tools. To combat information overload, they first searched to better structure information by developing navigational aids such as tables of contents and indices. “Others suggested note-taking methods, routines for memorizing, and procedures for recalling what had been memorized. (Johns)” Agostino Ramelli proposed new hardware: his book wheel was a massive device which held large books so the reader could rotate the wheel to toggle between volumes; hypertext at its earliest, perhaps.

As the literati of the time admitted to themselves that no one person could possibly read everything in existence, they adopted a system of peer review. Groups of scholars established committees to “read widely” in diverse topics, ultimately issuing perspectives that would help other scholars separate the wheat from the chaff. The concept of using peer review to combat information overload is one that has resurfaced today.

The term “Information Overload” was coined by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, Future Shock. According to Wikipedia, information overload is “the state of having too much information to make a decision or remain informed about a topic.” The overabundance of information is a result of both a large quantity of existing information and a high rate of production of new information. (“Information explosion” refers to the high rate at which new information is published.) The problem of information overload in today’s digital world is different from the problem faced by scholars in the 16th century. Computers and the internet have amplified the problem. Besides making it easier to publish new information and store archives of old material, the level of connectedness with which many of us live has made information overload a more active and interruptive problem. Konrad von Gesner, who lamented the amount of books in the mid sixteenth century, may have been overloaded with information while researching, reading, or investigating. When he was not actively working, however, he was likely able to relax and focus on that which he desired. Today, such an act is more difficult. From the businesswoman whose BlackBerry continuously notifies her of new messages which beg for her attention to the student whose essay writing is interrupted with e-mails, instant messages, and text messages, we are deluged with information.



  • The costs and effects of information overload.
  • Coping mechanisms from the past and present (information design, peer review, software and other technologies.)


The Information Quality Challenge: (from Urs's essay draft)

a) information quality = “reference to a set of characteristics aimed at stating whether a ‘message’ meets the functional, cognitive, aesthetic, and ethical requirements of different stakeholders, such as information creators, administrators, users, experts, etc.”

b) Current safeguards for information quality mostly apply to traditional (mass-scale, demand-driven) media (dominated by small number of professionals in commercial, hierarchical, centralized media companies):

  • Indirect ex ante regulation of broadcasting, for instance, in Europe
  • Code of Practices (e.g. UK), Press Councils, Ombudsmen
  • Code of Ethics, voluntarily adopted by news organizations and media companies
  • Ex post interventions, like lawsuits against libel, defamation

c) Now, new modes of information production (large number of non-professionals involved; highly decentralized; different set of principles and motivations)

  • Large-scale context shifts
  • High level of access to information
  • Quality assessment at the edges (users)

Attention Deficit Disorder/Cognitive Overload:

From an interview with psychiatrist Edward Hallowell

Q: What is ADT?

A: It's sort of like the normal version of attention deficit disorder. But it's a condition induced by modern life, in which you've become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving. In other words, it costs you efficiency because you're doing so much or trying to do so much, it's as if you're juggling one more ball than you possibly can.

Q: Are some people just better at multitasking than others?

A: No one really multitasks. You just spend less time on any one thing. When it looks like you're multitasking--you're looking at one TV screen and another TV screen and you're talking on the telephone--your attention has to shift from one to the other. You're brain literally can't multitask. You can't pay attention to two things simultaneously. You're switching back and forth between the two. So you're paying less concerted attention to either one.

I think in general, why some people can do well at what they call multitasking is because the effort to do it is so stimulating. You get adrenaline pumping that helps focus your mind. What you're really doing is focusing better at brief spurts on each stimulus. So you don't get bored with either one.

Q: Do you think this is a generational thing? Kids now are growing up with e-mail, cell phones and so on. Maybe they'll be able to cope better than we do?

A: I think maybe they'll be more adept with these tools when they get to the workplace, but I think the same principles will apply. How you allocate your time and your attention is crucial. What you pay attention to and for how long really makes a difference. If you're just paying attention to trivial e-mails for the majority of your time, you're wasting time and mental energy. It's the great seduction of the information age. You can create the illusion of doing work and of being productive and creative when you're not. You're just treading water.

From Seven, Life Interrupted, Seattle Times (2004)

"We have so many options, reward centers that we never had before,' says John Ratey, who teaches at Harvard and is a psychiatrist specializing in attention deficit disorder. 'I think that's why we're seeing more of this. There are more demands on our attention and less training for us to stop and take it all in. We seem to be amazing ourselves to death."

This is of particular interest when it comes to children who have grown up in the fast lane where Web pages that take more than five seconds to load are considered lame. Is the speed and ease compromising their attention spans? Their perspective? Their humanity? Even their work ethic? Or are we just threatened that they will lap us old fogies?


From Urs' essay draft:


  • Reputation systems
  • Quality labels, trustmarks

Social Norms

  • Codes of conduct for bloggers, transparency
  • Policies and guidelines at Wikipedia, Netiquette



  • Disclosure standards in health regulation (quality standards, procedural requirements, etc.)
  • Truth-in-advertising regulation
  • Right to correct wrong information

Behavior/Learning (training the dot in the middle)

Miscellaneous ideas:

Can increased collaboration aka Web 2.0 be interpreted as a response to information overload? If passive consumption becomes increasingly difficult and partly even unfeasible in view of an ever more diverse and abundant information environment, then web 2.0 strategies like tagging, remixing, mash-ups, and shared bookmarks can be regarded as essential tools to autonomously structure one's information environment. This reveals an interesting paradox of today's Internet: the very technologies we see at the heart of the information overload problem simultaneously provide us with the tools to combat it.

What is the process of news and information gathering?

  1. grazing
  2. deep dive
  3. feedback loop

Relevant Research

Information Overload, Wikipedia

Information Overload Blog

Lyman/Varian: How Much Information? 2003

Living and Working in the Information Society: Quality of Life in a Digital World (2003)

Eppler/Mengis: A Framework for Information Overload Research in Organizations (2003)

Kimble/Grimshaw/Hildreth: The Role of Contextual Clues in the Creation of Information Overload (1998)

Gasser: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: An Essay on Information Quality Governance on the Internet (Draft 2006)

Rigby: Warning, Interruption Overload (2006)

Saffo: It's the context, stupid (1994)

Gallagher: The DJ is the Filter (1994)

A Preliminary Step in Understanding the Nature of a Harmful Information-Related Condition: An Analysis of the Concept of Information Overload (2007)

On the attention economy

Franck: The Economy of Attention (1999)

Goldhaber: The Attention Economy and the Net (1997)

On attention deficits, distraction

Schonfeld, CNN: A cure to the attention deficit online? (2006)

Gilbert, C.NET Why can't you pay attention anymore? (2005)

Seven: Life interrupted: plugged into all, we are stressed to diistraction (2004)

Jiang et al.: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Provides New Constraints on Theories of the Psychological Refractory Period, Psychological Science (2004), Press Release

Elias: So much media, so little attention span (2005)

Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic (Washington Post, March 2007)

History of Information Overload

Coping with Information Overload in Early Modern Europe (Word Doc. Ann Blair, Dept of History, Harvard University)

The Birth of Scientific Reading (Nature, 2001)

Combatting Information Overload: The History of Information Overload

As We May Think (Atlantic Monthly, July 1945) [Overview of the proposed "memex;" discussion of how associations may assist man in organizing and finding information.]

Digital Information Explosion

Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs? (Washington Post, 2007)

Wolpert: Multi-Tasking adversely affects brain's learning, UCLA psychologists report, 2006

Time: The Multitasking Generation, 2006

Nielsen: IM, Not IP (Information Pollution), 2003

Basex: The High Cost of Interruption Report, 2005 and Measuring Interruption, 2005

Kaiser Family Foundation: Media-Multi Tasking, changing the amount and nature of young people's media use, 2005

Weinberger (Blog): Blogs, Journalism, and correction, incl. Long Tail Argument, 2007

Pew Study: Tagging, 2006

Pew Study: E-Gov, 2007

Pew Study: Blogging, 2006

Trust Without Knowledge: How Young Persons Carry out Research on the Internet (Gardner, 2006)