Tag Archives: Information Overload

The Problem of Information Obesity

The folks over at bloggingheads.tv introduced me to my new favorite term today: information obesity. In the video segment, Lev Grossman talks about the addictive component of data:

… we evolved — our brains and our bodies and everything in our society evolved– for an environment of information scarcity … and that our environment within the last 20 has flipped to an environment of information surplus. And our brains are still geared for scarcity so we gorge on data.

While Reihan Salam asks:

How does the [information] obesity manifest itself? What are the particular pathologies that it introduces?

It’s an interesting line of questioning. I can’t help wondering if blogging about information and infographics isn’t one symptom of a serious data addiction …

The video:

Who’s Your Filter?

One of the ways in which people deal with information overload is to use a filter to screen out unwanted information and eliminate the amount of time spent on non-essential topics. Filters can take many forms but one of the most common is simply the “trusted source” — a person or an organization that has passed some internal test for trustworthiness. Everyone takes advantage of these personal filters because they provide shortcuts for many of our day-to-day activities.

Sore throat? Ask your sister the nurse. Problem with your PC?  Call up your buddy the software engineer. Car on the fritz? Invite your gearhead uncle over for a beer and friendly consultation.

People simply do not have the time to become an expert on every single subject and they also don’t have the time to vet every single source. They need a way to cut through all the BS and get information that allows them to take action. They find someone they trust who seems to know what they’re talking about and — boom — they’ve got their filter.

The problem with any filter is that there is always an element of bias involved. Your uncle may be great with cars but maybe he’s also a Ford guy who can’t stand GM and thinks BMWs are over-priced toys. No matter how well-meaning he may be, his opinions will color his advice — which could lead you to a different decision than if you were an expert auto mechanic and doing the research yourself.

This is the main complaint that people on the right side of the political spectrum have with mainstream media. They feel that the types of events that are presented and the way these events are covered reflect the liberal bias of the reporters and commentators telling the stories. The standards of journalism are supposed to prevent this kind of bias by requiring journalists to double-check claims, verify the reliability of sources and issue corrections if necessary. By casting doubt on the ability of the mainstream media to follow its own code of ethics, the right has reduced the number of people who feel comfortable using these news outlets as trusted sources of information. This has opened up the doors for a whole new slate of  alternative news filters. Of course, these organizations and their sources have their own biases and — in the case of bloggers — are not even required to follow standard journalistic practices of impartiality.

A prime example of the issue of source bias was on display during the controversy surrounding Shirley Sherrod and the speech she made to the NAACP that led to her firing from the USDA. Blogger Andrew Breitbart released an edited video clip of the speech that appeared to implicate Ms. Sherrod as a racist. After a firestorm of criticism, she lost her job … and then some bright bulb actually watched the whole video. Sherrod was exonerated and the White House, FOX news, Bill O’Reilly and others who had relied on Mr. Breitbart as their filter were forced to apologize.

Mr. Breitbart himself has not issued an apology and, as a political activist, is probably not required to do so. In an interesting turn, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter places the blame squarely on Mr. Breitbart’s own trusted filter:

“I think Breitbart ought to reveal his source, because he was set up. This was a fraud. The person who sent the edited tape has to know what the full speech said, and whomever sent only that segment to Andrew Breitbart is the one who should apologize to Shirley Sherrod.”

Certainly someone along the chain of information exchanges made the crucial edit that altered the tenor of her speech. Who is ultimately responsible, then, for errors that creep into these kinds of stories? Unfortunately, with the erosion of trust in the journalistic profession and the explosion of non-traditional news sources, the consumers of the information are themselves responsible. In a sense, we are all journalists now.

Update:

  • August 8, 2010 – There is an interesting article that touches on the difference between activists and journalists in the context of the WikiLeaks scandal here: http://reason.com/archives/2010/08/06/julian-assange-wikijournalist
  • November 2, 2012 – A good review of the movie “Hating Breitbart” discussing some of the changes going on in the media (link: http://reason.com/archives/2012/11/02/hating-breitbarts-post-partisan-message). I liked the author’s quote: “Internet-empowered journalism isn’t a Cosmic Cube-style weapon that will once and for all lay waste to all bullshit artists residing in low and high places. No, the new media that Breitbart helped operationalize are more like an over-the-counter Super Soldier Serum that helps us all fight for truth and justice as we define those terms.” The only problem I see with this metaphor is that being a superhero is a 24/7 job. Are we all going to be ready when the bat signal appears in the sky? Or are some of us going to sleep in?

Information vs. Distraction (Part 1)

In a recent commencement speech to the graduating class at Hampton University in Virginia, President Obama told students:

“You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads, Xboxes and PlayStations … information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than a means of emancipation”.

Reaction to this statement ran the gamut from right-wing political bloggers saying it was an attack on free speech to techies saying the Prez was dissing all the cool tools people use to download their daily dose of entertainment. My own view is that it was an expression of concern about our ability to remain informed in the face of overwhelming flows of data.

It’s certainly hard not to notice the sheer volume of information these new technologies make available to the average person. A recent study from the University of California, San Diego estimates that the typical American consumes more than 34 gigabytes of non-work-related data every day — an increase of over 350% since 1980. A similar report by IDC states that the total amount of digital information available will increase by a factor of 44 over the next decade. Other sources tell essentially the same story: we are swimming in a sea of data and the water is still rising.

But is this really such a bad thing? As long as you can make sense of the information being presented, the volume of data is irrelevant. It is only when you can’t process the data that it becomes a problem. Futurist Alvin Toffler called this information overload and suggested that it was a symptom of the huge structural changes occurring in modern society.

In his address to Web 2.0 Expo NY, however, Clay Shirky made the argument that information overload has been with us ever since the advent of moveable type. He theorizes that it was only the financial costs of operating a printing press (or radio station or TV network) that imposed a natural filter on the quality and distribution of content. By the very nature of their business models, these media gatekeepers had to restrict and edit information so that their audiences would be willing to pay for it and they could make a profit. With the rise of computers and the Internet, these “natural” filters are gone. Today, there is simply no economic reason to screen anything out and the onus of filtering content has shifted to the individual.

I think this is where President Obama’s warning is directed. It’s not so much about controlling the information at the front end (which is what spooked a few folks in the blogosphere), it’s about managing data in our own everyday lives.

I’ll try and address some of these coping strategies in Part 2 of this article.

“And with Ipods and Ipads; and Xboxes and Playstations—-none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than a means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and our democracy”.