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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Information Overload

A major problem that impedes our understanding of how our noggins actually work lies in the metaphors that we use to understand ourselves, which tend to follow the metaphors of the machinery we use from day to day, from computers to cars. It's ironic that although we deny that we are robots or machines, we continue to describe our behavior with metaphors derived from not our brains and bodies, but household appliances.

Thus, we multi-task (like a spreadsheet), get charged up for a days work (like an electric razor), and get run down after a day at the office (like some type AA battery). A common metaphor that describes our daily stresses the metaphor of information overload. The idea is that information is something like an electric current, pump too much into our little brains, and they will figuratively if not literally explode.

But let's test this out. Open an encyclopedia, turn a few pages, now turn a lot of pages. Feel any information overload? That's because we have something called attention which sorts out and parses what we perceive. We feel not the shock of massive voltage, but indifferently perceive a massive blur. You see, the brain does not operate like electronic circuitry,it's an analog rather than digital device. Moreover, it operates on information, rather than just piping it in. It always receives more information than it can act upon, but rather than exploding in some type of electrical overload, it simply shades the stuff through the prism of attention. So why do we feel so stressed out if not for all the stuff we have to think about all day, from dinner for the kids to doctor's appointments to what present to give on Christmas?

Well, don't blame it on information, but rather the lack of it! Let's return to our encyclopedic example. Suppose, that while perusing the encyclopedia, I am charged with mastering its contents, or else. This is what happens when we take a college course, or are studying some book to pass a professional exam, CPA, PHD, or what not. Because of this addition demand characteristic, I have to figure out a way of assimilating all this information within a short time. If I don't have the knowledge or smarts to do that, I get tense, irritable, and anxious. In this case, information is not overloading me, but rather a lack of information that can show me the way.

Although a lack of information can make us crazy, an absence of information can make us equally so, and for this the only cure is avoidance. Let's say that while you're studying the encyclopedia, the refrigerator, sports channel, or email beckons. Here you're in a heck of dilemma because such diversions are not rational but affective things. Or in other words, they are of value because indulging in them makes us feel good. Distractions are not reasonable things, and thus we're forced into the eternal dilemma of choosing between God and mammon, work or pleasure, or taking out the garbage or watching the sports channel. We have a patchwork cure, namely excluding distractions to set times, thus we don't watch movies while on the job, or eat pizza at 3pm. Also in times past, the world segregated its pleasures for us, thus we could only watch TV, gamble, or have sex at separate times and places.

The problem is, with modern technology, distractions are becoming ever harder to segregate out during our working days. Internet, email, video games, and the ability to time shift our pleasures (such as TIVO) makes all pleasures available all the time. So, we've got lots of choices, and precious little time. Thus the problem of 'overload'. But again, it's really not. With more and more choices available, we need better information or rules of thumb to decide between them. We don't have them, and even if GOOGLE will discover some grand heuristic to help us decide what toothpaste to buy, technology will make sure our choices will continue to outrun our capacity to reasonably choose.

Not a very pretty prospect for the future, when choices are infinite, time is short, and our heads figuratively explode, because we will by then haven't a clue as to what to do.

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