Managing Information Overload

September 30, 2009

I was just pointed (via someone I follow on Twitter) to an article in the Harvard Business Review about how damaging information overload can be. It mentions a September 2009 article titled “Death by Information Overload” and cites the stress this puts not only on individuals but, as a result, on organizations.  But as author Alex Wright tells us in his book titled Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, this is not a new problem.  Here’s how the dust jacket summarizes the book:

Today’s well-documented ‘information explosion’ may seem like an acutely modern phenomenon, but we are not the first generation–or even the first species–to wrestle with the problem of information overload. Long before the advent of computers, human beings were were collecting, storing, and organizing information: from Ice Age taxonomies to Sumerian archives, Greek libraries to Dark Age monasteries.

I do recognize that the problem is especially intense these days.  Part of this results from the possibilities that social networking provides for expanding and enhancing our own brain:  members of one’s PLN (Personal Learning Network) become an extension of one’s own mind in a manifestation of an emergent form of collective intelligence.   This is the “memory of the future” that Wright envisions at the end of his book:  “As people find their way online, they seem to coalesce into small groups. . . .Small, self-organized communities [emerge] around common causes and shared values” (236).  I would call these “memedoms”:  a socio-political entity that exists outside of conventional markers of identity (country, political party, etc.), one that is bounded by the contours of a particular idea or “meme.”  Witness the followers of Rush Limbaugh who call themselves “ditto-heads” because they merely repeat verbatim what the master has spoken. . . The ideas that are channeled your way depend on who you’re following on Twitter, whose blogs you read, what RSS news feeds you receive, whose slideshows you favorite on Slideshare, and so on.

Information Overload has gotten so bad that there is now an Information Overload Research Group, complete with its own set of resources that point you in endless directions toward… yes, more information–in this case, about information overload!

I suggest one way to deal with this in a presentation about a concept I developed called “mnemonomics“:  the management of memory.  If we think of ourselves as part of a larger, emergent collective or group intelligence coalescing around certain memes or concepts, then we become part of a larger whole, doing our part, whatever that happens to be, to perpetuate the meme (as when I published a letter to the editor about the upcoming international day of action for climate change organized by 350.org).  As the idea of mnemonomics suggests, we need to learn how to manage this larger, socially-networked memory that we now have available to us.

The problem is similar to the age of print literacy, when people walked around with shirts that said, “So many books.  So little time.”  Now the shirts say, “So many social networks.  So little time.”  Same difference?