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Information overload refers to the state of having too much information to make a decision or remain informed about a topic. This term is usually used in conjunction with various forms of computer-mediated communication such as electronic mail. Large amounts of currently available information, a high rate of new information being added, contradictions in available information, a low signal-to-noise ratio, and inefficient methods for comparing and processing different kinds of information can all contribute to this effect.
Information overload has several causes. Objectively, the amount of readily available information has increased exponentially for the last five decades. There is no indication that this rate of increase will not continue in the foreseeable future. Some would argue that nothing can, or even should, be done about this. Some experts argue that the increase is merely the logical result of a free information market coupled with technological progress.
Subjectively, information overload comes from having more information available than one can readily assimilate; this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as "technostress". Technostress induces a correlated perception that users are being controlled by information and communication(s) technology (ICT) rather than being empowered by it. Like any kind of stress, technostress results in reduced intellectual performance and poor judgment; this is well-known to cognitive psychologists. This stress causes, and is a result of, haphazard and random use of ICT, creating a snowball effect. Lack of an efficient means of dealing with information also acts as an aggravating factor.
Historically, more information has almost always been a good thing. However, as the ability to collect information grew, the ability to process that information did not keep up. Decision-makers could no longer assimilate all the information they obtained. People now have to spend more time studying the information than in the past, leading to reduced time for action. Oddly enough, the Information Age has been named for something which once conferred only benefits, and which is now increasingly seen as a problem.
The signal-to-noise ratio is an often-used metaphor for describing information overload. It was originally an engineering term from the audio industry and was used to describe the proportion of desired sound, e.g. music, to unwanted sounds such as the crackling noise of a vinyl record. In the context of the Information Age, the term is used to describe the proportion of useful information found to all information found. Apart from the increase in information in absolute terms, there is the additional problem of the decline in relevancy or pertinence of returned documents. The ease and low-cost of online publishing - once one has a text in a machine-readable format, and once one has Web space, the additional cost of putting the text online is negligible - has led to a predictable glut of information which is often trivial or useless. (In fact, there are many Web pages that classify themselves as a "Useless Knowledge Page". These pages provide people with information such as, the Indian epic poem the "Mahabharata" is eight times longer than "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" combined.) But even without deliberate attempts to achieve irrelevancy, the amount of information on the Web causes a query about any given matter to return many results that are either unrelated or only tangentially useful. This abundance of information quickly lowers the signal-to-noise ratio.
The same effect is noticeable in e-mail. The technology is vulnerable to uncontrolled proliferation. As with Web publishing, there are few additional costs to e-mailing once one has a service provider and a machine-readable text. Sending a mail to dozens of people is inexpensive and simple, requiring only the recipients' e-mail addresses. By combining addresses into mailing lists, it is possible to send large amounts of unwanted mail to other users with little effort. Therefore, it was only a matter of time until someone invented spam - unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail.
On April 12, 1994, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel a married couple Arizona lawyers, took spamming to a new level of abuse when they posted an unsolicited commercial offer to help immigrants enter an upcoming "Green Card lottery" to over 6,000 Usenet newsgroups. Prior to that, spamming had been a fairly sporadic and even desultory phenomenon, mostly limited to off-topic postings in newsgroups. 12 years later, spam has become a major problem in terms of information overload. According to a recent survey [How to reference and link to summary or text], spam is up fivefold over the past 18 months, leaving the electronic mailboxes of Internet users jammed with billions of unwanted commercial e-mails. AOL blocks 780 million pieces of junk e-mail daily, or 100 million more e-mails than it delivers.
- Some Attention Must Be Paid: Digital Distractions Bad for the Workplace - Steven Levy, Newsweek, March 27, 2006
- The Role of Contextual Clues in the Creation of Information Overload (PDF)
- Information overload, retrieval strategies and Internet user empowerment.
- A Literature Review on Information Overload Studies in Marketing, Organization, MIS, Accounting and related disciplines (PDF)
- The Tyranny of Email
- Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload
- Assessing and Managing Technostress
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