December 7, 2016

Information Overload

1. Worries about information overload are not widespread

The advent of new communications and information media – the book, the printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television, the computer – are reliably accompanied by apprehensions about how to handle the flow of information. The ancients worried that the book would supplant the oral tradition of exchanging information and ideas among the elite. The printing press brought worry over the quality of written materials as more were produced more easily – and perhaps by those with less important things to say.

In a mid-twentieth century world more connected by mass media, the proliferation of knowledge, it was feared, would overwhelm experts trying to keep up with developments in their fields. One proposed solution to organize all this information was the “memex” or, to use the term that caught on, the connected computer.

New digital tools seem only to have exacerbated worries about information overload, not soothe them. By the early 2000s, experts were already bemoaning how the volume of digitally driven information could undercut personal productivity, undermine social ties and foster distraction. The anxious social critic feared that constant flow of digital messages would result in shallow connections among people but not meaningful conversations. It might also create anxiety among people who fear they cannot keep up with information demands. In the workplace, these demands would create stress for workers and also inhibit creativity.

Notwithstanding these worries, there is a potential upside to the vast and rapid flow of information in society. The optimists noted that people’s abilities to access information online can open new doors to knowledge, facilitate connections with friends and make all sorts of transactions more convenient. Those hoping for the best argued that in conjunction with effective use of filters, new tools to access information – smartphones, tablets and other computing devices – may help navigate the information landscape in ways that are satisfying and empowering.

A Pew Research Center survey shows that concerns about information overload are not widely shared by the public. The survey explored people’s perceptions about information overload, whether information makes their lives seem more complex, and their attitudes about coping with information demands.

One measure of information overload came in response to the following question: “Some people say they feel overloaded with too much information these days. Others say they like having so much information available. How about you? Do you feel overloaded, or do you like having a lot of information available?” Some 20% of adults say they feel overloaded and 77% say they like having so much information. These figures are essentially unchanged since 2013 but the share of Americans who say they feel overloaded is lower than 10 years ago.

There are clear patterns in the types of Americans who feel overloaded by information, but in no major demographic group do more than a third say they are overwhelmed. Those whose annual household incomes are $30,000 or less are somewhat more likely to say they feel overloaded by information: 25% do, compared to 15% of those living in households whose annual incomes exceed $75,000. There are small differences, too, when it comes to educational attainment: 24% of those with high school diplomas or less feel information overload, compared with 16% of college graduates. The sentiment is also most prominent among senior citizens: 31% of those ages 65 and older feel information overload, while just 13% of those ages 18 to 29 report that.

A second measure of information overload involved a question about the degree to which people felt information makes their lives complex. Some 27% say that the volume of information makes their lives seem more complex, while two-thirds (67%) say information helps to simplify their lives. There are not many demographic differences evident in these answers. Only older Americans (those ages 65 and older) and lower-income Americans (those in homes with annual incomes of $30,000 or less) show notable differences, with 34% and 30%, respectively, saying information makes their lives more complex.