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Information Overload and Our Reliance on the Machine

Information overload is a problem that’s hard to pick apart. Haven’t we been deluged with information for hundreds of years? How can we turn down the data spigot without losing out on opportunities? Is anybody thinking creatively on this front?

A new book, Overload! How Too Much Information if Hazardous to Your Organization, by Jonathan Spira valiantly grapples with these issues. Spira is chief executive of the research firm Basex, and he’s been a passionate crusader against such deluge through his surveys and writings. Sometimes, Spira’s book itself slips into overload mode; a reader doesn’t need quite so much convincing that the problem is real. But get past the fretting and the many barometers of overload, and the book has numerous eye-opening moments – and practical suggestions.

Spira is at his best, for instance, when tackling email. He was one of the first to see its dangers. Like rabbits overrunning Australia, email breeds astronomically, especially through thoughtless “reply all” responses and equally thoughtless over-lengthy content. Spira fights back by offering a brief preface of his message at the top of an email, a tactic called “Bottom Line Up Front” that Spira borrowed from a former military officer. (Col. Peter Marksteiner – Does Twitter Match The Mission?) Such small, elegant solutions are crucial for handling overload.

It seems to me that the issue overall boils down to a two-part challenge.

First, quality and quantity.  In our daily life, humans endlessly endeavor to parse out the relevant from volumes of information hitting us physically and cognitively. Overload becomes an issue when the pace and volume of data exceeds our biological ability to sift and sort it. The result? Stress, paralyzed decision-making, and shallow thought, as Spira notes.

Consider online searching – a time when the human should take charge, sculpting a question designed to pull relevant data from the machine. Instead, people don’t take the time to formulate a careful query, and so are deluged with trivia. Their mistake, it seems to me, is to hope that the machine will do all the thinking.Instead, we need the tenacity to get past the first page of mostly paid results and the first phase of frustration and confusion endemic to research. We need to ask ourselves, are we thinking and reflecting throughout our data-driven day?

Spira’s research has found that knowledge workers spend just 5 percent of their days on thought and reflection, down from 12 percent of the day in 2008. That slippage is the true key to fighting overload, I believe. That’s why reflection – our most crucial form of perspective-taking – is the subject of my next book.

Stay tuned!

Book Note: What am I reading right now? Lastingness: The Art of Old Age by Nicholas Delbanco, a look at how creators stay productive in their later years.

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