In This Article Information Overload

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Concept and Theory of Overload
  • Causes of Information Overload
  • Potential Solutions

Communication Information Overload
by
David J. Grimshaw
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0133

Introduction

The term “information overload” can be traced back to 2,300 years ago. In more-recent academic literature, it was used to indicate limits to information handling and processing capacities. The notion of “overload” has been expressed in the poetry of T. S. Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” In addition to “overload,” other information pathologies include infobesity, information anxiety, and information avoidance. In the early 21st century there is a consensus that information overload refers to a state where the flow of information exceeds the cognitive capacity to process it. However, some authors have introduced the notion of “perceived information overload” as a concept that is measurable. The rate of data creation is faster in the early 21st century than at any time in the past. But what is the quality of the information that is created? A Google Scholar search for “information overload” found 92,000 results, but a library search for this term within peer-reviewed journals found 1,752. The digital economy has increased the reach and richness of information because of the minimal distribution costs. Different information intensities of goods require different mechanisms for communicating their quality. This is an area that has been studied by those interested in consumer behavior. Over time, as the concept has evolved, so has the focus of academic research. Early work had a focus on cognition, and this continues as an important theme. Later work has in addition a focus on the causes of overload; for example, the ways in which social media have changed behavior relating to information seeking. The tendency for more information to come in smaller chunks (e.g., Twitter’s 140-character limit per tweet) but to be delivered 24/7 has had an effect on the brain. The notion of information overload has often been related to the notion of being disorganized. From a neuroscience perspective, overload is framed as cognitive overload. Technologies are sometime seen as causes of overload; for example, email and social media. But technologies can also be seen as ways of structuring information that help us process it more effectively—for example, writing or databases. Other key solution areas that are considered in the literature include organizational change and personal adaptation strategies, and human-computer interaction design for enabling interruptions to be a positive source of information.

Reference Works

There is no one textbook that should be consulted; rather, this section collects key books and websites that form a good starting point for reading about information overload. Grimshaw 2008 has the merit of being short, though it is now somewhat dated. Information Overload Research Group is a useful starting point for access to a range of research papers. The group has a focus on the practical issues of solving overload, and Zeldes 2014 springs from that tradition. Shenk 1998 also contains practical, useful “solutions” but also raises questions about the impact of “data smog” on society. For a more academic source of thinking, Lavenda 2014 discusses the background influences before diving into the specific area of email overload. Behavioral sciences have made important contributions to the field by increasing our understanding of how we handle interruptions. The website Interruptions in Human-Computer Interaction is a rich source of material on the interplay between technology and human multitasking. Levitin 2015 takes the study of multitasking further, arguing that a combination of that and technology addiction reduces efficiency. Beyond examining the impact on individuals and organizations, Carr 2010 argues that the Internet is shaping the process of thinking. The author raises some important questions for society to ponder, including what our close relationship to technology is doing to our humanity.

  • Carr, Nicholas. 2010. The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: Norton.

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    A well-acclaimed book that looks at the wider implications of overload. Seeks to cast light on some crucial questions for society, such as “Is technology our servant or master?” Carr’s main argument is that the media (Internet) are not just channels of information, they are also shaping the process of thought.

  • Grimshaw, David J. 2008. Information overload. In The international encyclopaedia of communication. Vol. 5, Fi–in. Edited by Wolfgang Donsbach, 2234–2238. Oxford: Blackwell.

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    A short introduction to the subject that outlines the concept in terms of quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Grimshaw briefly discusses the consequences before he ends with some key research questions.

  • Information Overload Research Group.

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    A group of academics, consultants, and practitioners whose aim is to reduce information pollution; started in 2007, it is now an Oregon nonprofit corporation, with the main focus is on solving the problem. The resource center is a crowdsourced collection of research papers.

  • Interruptions in Human-Computer Interaction.

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    A repository of over two hundred research papers, all available to download in Adobe Acrobat format. The papers focus on capturing the potential information contained in interruptions, looking at the psychology of human interruption through the lens of human-computer interaction.

  • Lavenda, David A. 2014. The impact of intra-organizational email usage on worker information overload. MSc thesis, Bar-Ilan Univ., Israel.

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    Useful for the extensive list of references and an appendix, which lists cited causes of overload during two time periods: 1985–1994 and 2000–2009. Also has a good literature review. Available online.

  • Levitin, Daniel J. 2015. The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. London: Penguin.

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    Provides strategies for thinking on the basis of insights from neuroscience about how the mind works. Useful for people who want to improve their ability to process information. Considers the addiction of technology and multitasking, arguing that they make us less efficient.

  • Shenk, David. 1998. Data smog: Surviving the information glut. Rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperEdge.

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    Shenk’s term “data smog” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004. Written in a journalistic style, the book was controversial back in 1998, but in the early 21st century, some of his warnings of impacts on society seem more believable. Worth reading for the practical proposals in the appendixes.

  • Zeldes, Nathan. 2014. Solutions to information overload: The definitive guide. Nathan Zeldes.

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    A practical book of 120 pages that addresses key issues such as email overload. Solutions vary, from the technical ways to adapt to email clients, to the individual ways in which all of us can modify our behavior. Available for ordering on the author’s website.

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