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Paper Trail:
Information Overload

Paper Trail:
Information Overload


World-renowned author Daniel Tammet, in his second book, Embracing the Wide Sky, explores the human mind as only someone with his unique gifts can.

Our world is generating more information with more resources and technology now than at any time in history: through TV and radio programs, cell phones, magazines, email, websites, blogs, and other media. There is no doubting the benefits that the free and plentiful flow of information has brought to our lives, but as many people are finding out: there really can be too much of a good thing.

Being overwhelmed by a continuous maelstrom of information can be just as damaging to our minds as having too little of it; both extremes dampen down careful, reflective thinking, the ability to make meaningful connections between disparate facts or ideas, to gain genuine understanding of complex issues and events, and to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. The modern "toomuchness" of information is eroding both the vigor and rigor of our mental lives.

In numerous studies, psychologists give support to the idea that too much information can be harmful to our brains. In 1997, journalist David Shenk touched on many of these concerns in his book, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, arguing that modern forms of information were multiplying faster than our ability to process them, leading to "infoglut" and detracting from our quality of life. British psychologist David Lewis describes the negative effects of data smog -- from insomnia to poor concentration--as "information fatigue syndrome," and business executives in his case studies show symptoms ranging from irritability to heart problems and hypertension. Dr. Lewis's studies also show that workers struggling with an excess of information are more likely to make mistakes or misunderstand coworkers and orders, and to work longer hours in an attempt to keep up with the flow of new information.

When faced with a plethora of information, many people try to multitask, but scientific research suggests that this does not help. Rene Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University, measured how much efficiency is lost when two tasks are carried out at the same time. The first task involved pressing the correct button in response to one of eight sounds, while the second asked subjects to say the correct vowel after seeing one of eight images. When given the tasks one at a time, the participants' performance for each task was not significantly different. However, when asked to perform the two tasks simultaneously, the subjects significantly slowed in their performance of the second one.

One of the most common negative side effects of information overload is distraction, which costs people and companies time and efficiency. Eric Horvitz, a research scientist, and his coresearcher Shamsi Iqbal carried out a study to evaluate the effect that distractions like email or web surfing have on a worker's ability to perform serious mental tasks, such as writing reports or computer code. They found that responding to an email or instant message slowed workers down considerably: on average each needed around fifteen minutes after the interruption before settling back into productive work. The initial distraction often snowballed as the workers replied to other messages or browsed websites. One estimate for the financial cost to the American economy of such lost productivity puts the figure at as much as $650 billion per year.

The hope of many is that technology can help produce a solution to the problem it helped to create. Anti-spam filtering is a good example of this. Spam -- the name for the indiscriminate sending of unsolicited bulk messages -- is a particularly frustrating problem for web users, with estimates suggesting it accounts for four-fifths of all emails. The content of these messages is often offensive, or contains scams to trick the greedy or gullible. Fortunately, email filters and quarantine folders can significantly reduce the amount of spam you might otherwise receive.

To help you avoid cyber junk mail, internet advisers recommend that you never reply to any spam message, even to ask to be removed from the sender's contact list. You should also avoid using your actual email address when posting a message on a newsgroup. Think of your email address as you would your home address and be just as wary of giving it to others.

Washington state computer scientist Gordon Bell has devised a more extreme technical solution to the problem of information overload. For the past decade, Bell has been creating a vast digital archive of his life on a computer he calls his "surrogate brain." A tiny camera around his neck captures minute-by-minute images of his daily experiences, while an audio recorder tapes the contents of his every conversation. His archive includes more than 100,000 emails, 58,000 photos, thousands of recorded phone calls, and logs of every website he has visited since 2003. This "lifelogging" experiment has won both admirers and detractors. Some view him as a pioneer for a not-too-distant future of virtual memories that will make light work of our data deluge. Frank Nack, a computer scientist like Bell, disagrees, emphasizing instead the importance of forgetting. Forgiving someone, he points out, requires the ability to forget particular elements of our past. Others worry that recording our lives would make those around us cagier and less natural, feeling as though they were always performing for the camera.

Another problem with "surrogate brains" is the negative effect they have on our real ones. In 2007, neuroscientist Ian Robertson interviewed three thousand adults, asking them for standard personal information. He found that less than 40 percent of those under the age of thirty could remember a single relative's birthdate. Even more surprising, fully a third had to rely on their mobile phones to tell them their own telephone number.

Far more significant then forgetting such details is the impoverishment of our self-understanding that comes from comparing the brain to a computer's data storage system. As we saw in chapter 3, our memories are not bits of data but complex patterns of story, imagery, and emotion. The poet Derek Walcott makes a similar point in his 1992 Nobel Prize lecture, where he compares our memories to fragments of a cherished vase that we lovingly piece back together. It is the very act of putting the pieces back together, Walcott suggests, that helps us to love.

Technical solutions can only ever be a small part of the solution to the problems of information overload. Personal decisions and actions that seek to take control of how we acquire information and knowledge are much more important. Establishing boundaries and deadlines is perhaps the simplest way of doing this: turning off your work cell phone outside of office hours, for example, and deciding to check email no more than once per hour.

Learning how to search systematically for required information is a valuable way to avoid wasting lots of time and energy. Putting single words into search engines is never as efficient as using multiple specific terms and punctuation to guide your search. For example, typing "first novel" and "Sherlock -Holmes" (the quotation marks tell the search engine to look for the words within them as a complete phrase) produces 70,000 results and the answer -- A Study in Scarlet -- in the very first one, compared with 320,000 results without the quotation marks.

Step away occasionally from your computer and into your local library, where information is stored in a clear, sophisticated layout that allows rapid access to thousands of books on hundreds of different subjects. Navigating your way around a library's shelves is a useful, if sadly undervalued, skill. Most libraries use a system called the Dewey decimal classification scheme (named after the librarian Melvil Dewey) to organize their nonfiction books into specific categories. According to the Dewey system, all books on the same subject are found in the same area, while books on related or similar subjects are found nearby. In this way a book's similarity or content's relation to another is represented in a spatial architecture -- the more closely that two books are related, the closer together they are on the library's shelves. The system gives each book a code, allotting it to one of ten major categories according to an intricate yet beautifully intuitive classification:

Section 000-099: General: encyclopedias, directories, books of facts and records, IT, and the paranormal.

These sections are then divided into subsections, so for example:

Section 700-799: The Arts: drawing, painting, photography, music, dance, theater, hobbies, and sports.

Each of these subsections is in turn subdivided into specific topics:

730: Sculpture.

The subjects can become even more specialized by affixing decimal points to the numbers (the more numbers after the decimal, the more specialized the topic):

739.2: Work in precious metals.

Memorizing every number in the Dewey system is not necessary: libraries use alphabetical subject indexes, allowing the searcher to look up a topic and find the number next to its name. Noteworthy, too, is how the books' arrangement naturally unfolds, beginning with the general (encyclopedias, dictionaries), then moving to systems of thought (philosophical, religious, and social) before tackling the sciences and humanities. The subsections are likewise organized intuitively, from the general to the more specific, occasionally using devices such as chronology to help give the information a meaningful arrangement.

Dewey's system is a marvel of organization, but I have given detailed examples here in order to make an important philosophical as well as practical point. Information is meaningless unless it can be made sense of, and to do that it requires an internal system of thought and ideas that can provide context and relate it to other information we have already learned.

Many people lack a coherent worldview with which they can evaluate and assimilate new information. The problem of information overload, therefore, may not be the quantity of it but our inability to know what to do with it. One possible explanation for this is the common confusion between information and ideas. In his book, The Cult of Information, history professor Theodore Roszak makes the point that the mind thinks with ideas, not information. Ideas are of primary importance because they define, make sense of, and create information. Roszak goes further still by arguing that the greatest ideas, such as the Founding Fathers' "all men are created equal," do not contain any information at all. Rather, such ideas are the result of an innate human sensibility that reaches beyond strings of data to recognize and synthesize transcendent patterns of thought. A personal worldview then helps put information back into perspective, giving it an intuitive place in our minds like the books in a library.

Creating such a system of ideas for your mind starts with the cultivation of a healthy curiosity about yourself and the lives and the world around you. Never stop asking questions, even if the answers seem far removed from your ability to immediately glimpse or grasp them. Find joy in learning. Exercise your innate desire to discover truths about our existence, something I believe everyone possesses. Understand, too, the enormous difference between knowing the name for something and really knowing it. Physicist Richard Feynman often quoted this argument made by his father:

"See that bird?" he says. "It's a Spencer's warbler." (I knew he did not know the real name.) "Well, in Italian, it's a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it's a Bom da Peida. In Chinese it's a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese it's a Katano Takeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts!"

Use your imagination as much as possible, especially in "thought experiments" that force you to think about the consequences of something being true. Take, for example, the urban myth of the alligators in New York's sewers that I described near the start of this chapter. Consider for a moment the consequences of this actually being true. As one official noted wryly, if those alligators really did exist, sewage workers' unions would be demanding a pay increase to compensate for the extra risk involved in their work.

Perhaps most important, treat each new piece of information you read or watch or hear as a potential piece in a puzzle, rather than as simply an end in itself. Acquiring information is not the same as learning, or thinking, or living for that matter. Bits of information are what we use to build reflections, evaluations, and understanding in our minds. Like each one of us, these dots of data make most sense when they contribute to something greater than themselves.

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Daniel Tammet