Problems of Digital Information Overload

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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?