Information overload: infobese


I discussed last week the information revolution and how we have near infinite access (in the developed nations) to information. It is possibly the age of infobesity.

I read a great deal on a very wide range of topics each day, then I go scouring around trying to find links between these wide topics. And as you might suppose with near infinite information you have a pretty good chance of finding at least some links. Are these possible connections just spurious – a simple numbers game? I once read about a word (which of course I can not remember now) that means the mental disease of finding connections between things when they do not exist. I should add this to the growing list of information revolution diseases along with infobese (if I could only find that word again in this mass of info).

Now I have a reason behind bringing up this concept for in our modern age as many (if not most) of us face this problem of information overload. We have to make daily choices on what information to pay attention to, what information to value and trust, but also what information to save or bookmark.

In the past our brain evolved an attention system to decide what in the environment to attend to (I am sure you can imagine many possibilities so I don’t have to give examples). But in our current time we have to worry less about attending to potential rewards (eg. food) or predators out in the environment. Instead we have to make decision on what information we should consume. Therefore, in our current time we have far more things competing for our attention than say in the caveman era. Sure we can decide to live under a rock and ignore the information world, but most of you reading this have obviously decided to continue to venture forth into the info world (since you are reading a blog). It will be interesting to see how our old attentional system, with help from higher cognitive cortical areas, survive/thrive in this new information jungle.

I know that currently I have many topics I want to blog about. I also am realizing that most of my blog pieces are too long for the normal attention span of the infobese era. That I should write short little pieces with a link and end it there. But my old ways keep propping up in that I want to try to piece things together into a somewhat bigger picture. In reality the net seems to have shortened our attention span (maybe the first adaptation (or at least one option) to info overload).

I found it very interesting that the novelist Neal Stephenson, who has written several novels in the 1,000 page range, said regarding his current attention span in his recent Wired interview:

“It’s harder for me even to read books than it used to be, and there’s an obvious irony there.”

So what are some other options to deal with this information deluge? A few options are we can filter (various technological options), use web 2.0 (friends suggestions), or try to eat the entire internet. The later can lead to indigestion.

I will be interested in hearing what the readers solution (coping mechanism) to this problem. Share with us all.

A case study

One example of the amount of info out there and the inability to consume it, all even after using various filtering mechanism is my recent 4 months off of work. I store various scientific and other sources of info on my laptop. On the average day I consume the ‘just’ of many papers and articles but do not fully read them all (say I read 3 full scientific papers, but I have skimmed and saved another 10). One of my hopes for my time off was to fully digest these saved up info sources. I really thought I could do this. And sure I did consume some of them, but in reality could not make even a meaningful dent in my backlog of readily accessible info sitting on my laptop. I also feverishly worked at distilling various diverse sources of info (compulsion to find the links and try to make a bigger picture of all the info – it truly is a disease) and made some headway – but as usual more question propped up than answer.

What I learned that I didn’t know before is that I will never catch up – there will always be more that I want to read than I am able to – no matter how much time I take off. This has been a meaningful lesson for me. What are my options? Be more selective in my info? What?

Okay the blog piece has once again become too long and this time I didn’t even tie things together. Ah – the age of info, the age of infobese. Maybe I need to go on a diet.

3 comments for “Information overload: infobese

  1. CC
    September 24, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    I always have this doubt in my mind – is there any chance that we as scientists are repeating some of the experiments done say 30 or 40 years ago? When I started grad school, the earliest papers I read dated back to ~1970s. After finishing grad school, I thought I’ve the background down pretty well. So I’m only reading recent papers for the latest advances in my field.
    No body has time to go to the library to dig out those old old papers anymore.
    So say 30 years from now, is our current work going to be forgotten (at least the less important findings), and repeated all over again….?

  2. CC
    September 24, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    I mean, with the information overload, who’d bother to read up on old findings?

  3. Ward
    September 25, 2008 at 8:34 am


    it is easier now (and 30 years from now) to keep track of the research because of papers being in electronic format (searchable and easy to download). And since science technology is always changing we have new (better) ways of further testing theories (so it seems like we are doing the same thing over and over).