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Bringing on the info overload

This article appears in the issue February 2010 [Volume 19, Issue 2]

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Information overload isn’t the problem we once thought it was. In fact, as the Internet Age got started, it renounced its entire heritage, and even changed its basic character. It’s as if Jenna Bush changed her last name to Gore and then transformed from a person into, say, a climate. In the case of info overload, the change tells us a lot about our current age.

The term “information overload” was coined as a follow-on to “sensory overload,” a term with a related and revelatory history. The first use of the actual phrase that I can find was in a paper by Donald B. Lindsley at a conference at Harvard Medical School in June 1958. But it entered popular use in the mid-1960s. For example, an article in The Nation in 1966 introduces the phrase as if it were unfamiliar to readers: “Recent experimentation, however, has confirmed the significance of the problem of sensory overload; that is, of an inability to absorb more than a certain amount of experience in a given time.” In 1968, in testimony to a Senate panel on drug experience, a witness used the term and again had to explain what it means. So, we can put the phrase’s rise into ordinary usage right at the beginning of the popular career of psychedelic drugs.

Sensory overload concept

The concept of sensory overload (not the phrase) is usually traced back to an article by Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” written in 1903, when we didn’t yet know about the joys of LSD and the Grateful Dead. Simmel points to the effects the onrush of sensations have on the mental life of city dwellers. “Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences, i.e., his mind is stimulated by the difference between present impressions and those which have preceded,” he wrote. Put us in a city, and we’ll cope with the onrush of “violent stimuli” by becoming more head than heart, by becoming indifferent, by becoming numb.

This psychological observation was in sync with what people had seen happen during World War II. Soldiers were known to sleep through artillery attacks, so numbed were they by the overwhelming landscape of sensation.

Our “channel capacity”

Simmel’s article was translated into English in 1950, and it began to have an effect, in part because it rode on the back of the burgeoning new science of information. The brain started to look like one end of a communication system, connected by “channels” that could get overloaded the way a telephone wire could have so many inputs that all you got at the other end was noise. That’s exactly how Alvin Toffler explained the notion of information overload in his 1970 bestseller, Future Shock. Suppose we were being overwhelmed not by mere sensations—the constant sounds of cars, the mingled smells of multiple sidewalk carts—but by information? Toffler is thinking of information here not as a information scientist—sequences of bits with varying degrees of predictability—and not as mere sensation, but as small, intelligible facts about our world. In explaining information overload, however, Toffler uses the concepts of information science: The amount of information we’re given in the modern world can exceed our “channel capacity” and our brain’s processing power.

When information overload started off, it created the same sorts of difficulties as sensory overload: Info overload was a psychological syndrome in which we lose our ability to act rationally. Overload us with information and we won’t be able to make good decisions, we were cautioned. “Sanity itself thus hinges” on avoiding information overload, Toffler warns.

Remarkable adaptation

But that’s not how we think about information overload now, even though the amount of information far outstrips what Toffler feared would unhinge us. (It’s actually quite amusing to read the research from the mid-1970s that thought that consumers faced with 16 different fields of information on the labels of competing products would suffer from information overload. Sixteen? Hahahaha.) We now think of information overload as a social issue, not a psychological one. We do not worry about losing our minds so much as not being able to find the information we need.

This is a remarkable story of adaptation. What we thought as a predicament that would destroy our ability to make rational decisions and might even drive us mad has now become simply our environment. It’s where we live. Rather than fleeing from the overload of information, our concern is that we’re not getting enough of it. We have adapted well.

Or, perhaps, gone mad.  

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