Information overload

From Academic Kids

Information overload is a term that is usually used in conjunction with various forms of computer-mediated communication such as electronic mail. It refers to the state of having too much information to make a decision or remained informed about a topic. Large amounts of historical information to dig through, a high rate of new information being added, contradictions in available information, a low signal-to-noise ratio making it difficult to identify what information is relevant to the decision, or the lack of a method for comparing and processing different kinds of information can all contribute to this effect.

The term was coined in 1970 by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock.



Information overload is a phenomenon which has both objective and subjective causes. Objectively, the amounts of readily available information have increased exponentially in each of the last five decades. There is no indication at present that this rate of increase will not continue to apply in the forseeable future. It is not clear that anything can, or even should, be done about this. It could be argued that the increase is merely the logical result of a free information market coupled with technological progress.

The subjective component of information overload comes from our having more information available to us than we can readily assimilate; this is a perceived phenomenon - though it is clearly no less real on that account - and is sometimes referred to as "technostress" . Perceived technostress induces a correlate perception that users are being controlled by ICT rather than being empowered by it. Like any other kind of stress, technostress results in reduced intellectual performance and poor judgment; this is well-known to cognitive psychologists. In a sort of negative feedback loop, this partly causes, and is also partly a result of, haphazard and random use of ICT. Lack of a coherent conceptual knowledge management framework may also act as an aggravating factor.

In the historical perspective, more information has almost always been a very good thing. Information made possible the dissemination of culture, the development of commerce and technology - and it was one of the main driving forces behind the large-scale establishment of democracy and human rights. There was quite literally no downside to having more information. The dissemination of information empowered people. Oddly enough, the Information Age has been named for something which once conferred only benefits, and which is now increasingly seen as a problem.

Signal-to-noise ratio

The signal-to-noise ratio is an often-used metaphor for describing information overload. It was originally an engineering term from the audio industry and was used to describe the proportion of desired sound, e.g. music, to unwanted sounds such as the crackling noise of an old vinyl long-playing record. In the context of the Information Age, the term is used to describe the proportion of useful information found to all information found. Apart from the increase in information in absolute terms, there is, however, the additional problem of the relative decline in relevancy or pertinence of returned documents. The ease and low-cost of online publishing - once one has a text in a machine-readable format, and once one has a homepage, the additional cost of putting the text online is quite negligible - has led to a predictable glut of information which can, in all fairness, only be described as trivial or useless. (In fact, there are any number of Webpages that actually self-classify themselves as "Useless Knowledge Page" and the like . These pages provide people with such information as that the Indian epic poem the "Mahabharata" is eight times longer than "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" combined.) But even without this deliberate attempt to achieve irrelevancy, it is plain that a query about any given matter stands in a sort of competition with vast amounts of information which would be suitable to answering some other query, but not this particular one. This means that the signal-to-noise ratio has been critically degraded - with dramatic effects on precision and recall.


Much the same thing has happened with e-mail. The technology itself is extremely vulnerable to uncontrolled proliferation. As with Web publishing, there are no real additional costs to e-mailing once one has a provider and a machine-readable text. Sending a mail to dozens of people is as cheap and as easy as sending the same mail to one recipient only. One need only have the e-mail address in one's directory. By combining addresses into personalized mailing lists, it is possible with only a very few keystrokes to send large amounts of unwanted mail to people one barely knows. Given that this is so, it was only a question of time until someone invented spam — unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail.

History records the following significant date: On April 12, 1994, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, a married team of Arizona lawyers, took spamming to an entirely new level of abuse when they posted to over 6,000 Usenet newsgroups an unsolicited commercial offer to help immigrants enter an upcoming "Green Card lottery." Prior to that, spamming had been a fairly sporadic and even desultory phenomenon, mostly limited to off-topic postings in newsgroups.

Not ten years later, spam has become a major problem in terms of information overload. According to a recent survey, spam is up fivefold over the past 18 months, leaving the electronic mailboxes of Internet users jammed with billions of unwanted commercial e-mails. AOL blocks 780 million pieces of junk e-mail daily, or 100 million more e-mails than it delivers.

See also

Related to academic disciplines, chaos, and improving channels for conveying data from one place to another (such as writing, printing, sound and image recording, storage and global networks of broadcasting and communication channels).

External links

de:Informationsüberflutung he:היצף מידע


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