I agree. We've had too much information since the 1500s - but recently we don't have people filtering the information. I previously argued that the problem with the volume of data is precisely that computers are poor at dealing with it - specifically video, but it applies to information in general.

Clay Shirky was speaking at the web 2.0 expo and he summarizes the history of the problem in 2 main points:

  1. In the Printing Press era, Publishers filtered for quality since it costs money to publish.
  2. On the Internet there is effectively no (or less) filtering for quality because the economics don't force it: it's cheap/free to publish things online.

That describes the reason for the problem - but I think it goes a bit deeper. That it took 400 years to get from state 1 to state 2 is our luck. Information wants to be free, in general. There is no inherent cost to information - so the associated costs are usually arbitrary 1. And those costs will trend towards 0 since that is the actual cost of the information.

What to Do

I've mentioned previously that there is a tendency to solve this problem by tossing information out quickly.

  • NewsGator's FeedDemon software (for reading RSS feeds) has a button that encourages you to mark everything as read if it gets too full.
  • As I mentioned, I personally, in my RSS usage, have a folder called Firehose - the purpose of which is to capture "all the extra stuff" and I can safely mark that entire group of 20 feeds as read - simply blast it away if it gets too full.

But these "solutions" throw out the wheat with the chaff 2. In the 3-pronged approach (Processes, Practices, & Technology), I think that Shirky hits on practices. Or maybe just a practice.

Towards the end of the video (@ 21:41), he says:

This is more of a mental shift. It's a way of seeing the world that assumes that we are to information overload as fishes are to water. It's just what we swim in.

Don't try to explain or excuse information overload. Accept that it's a problem and that we need new filters. That's one practice: information overload is there and you need to accept that it is something that needs to be overcome. He goes on to say:

Some of [the fix] is actually around re-thinking social norms. When you feel yourself getting too much information, I think the discipline is not to say to yourself "what happened to the information?" but rather, "what filter just broke? What was I relying on before that stopped functioning?"

I not going to try to sound all of the potential practices. But I do want to flesh out this one a bit, since anything further is predicated on the acceptance of this concept.

Practice 1: Accept the existence of too much Information

Practice 1: There is a ton of information. If you can feel "the psychic weight" of that information, the system is broken.

It seems very "12 steps" but I think that it's an important point. BUT, this practice needs a corollary:

  • Your expectation for review & response to the current information should not be predicated on previous methods of communication.

What do I mean? If your expectation of a phone call is to respond immediately (always answering every call) and your expectation of an email is to respond with 48 hours (or not at all) and you bring those kinds of expectations to this mass of information you're starting off in the wrong place.

Immediate and quick responses work for a small-medium load of information. They do not work for information overload. That's an out-moded understanding of information processing. Get rid of it. I'm not sure what the right expectation is - but it includes some form of the understanding of "I will not respond, review, or even give attention to every piece of information."

Many people have learned this already. I know business executives who, because of their position are inundated with information and have learned this axiom. But for some this is a struggle because it risks missing important and new information. That risk is real and it is in the technology that we mitigate the risk. For now, accept that the risk exists and it's a part of the equation that can't be removed.


I don't think that you need to disconnect completely: there is too much information, but the answer is to accept that and find ways to cope - not to just throw out the information. One of our challenge as humans is to make sense of our world.

But also, we need to find & make better tools at filtering the information. There is more information being created and, for the short-term this trend is going to continue: with the rate of information creation increasing. I might talk further about current tools available, but my aim is not to do that. I want to think about the new tools, find some, and also create some. But, if you aren't already familiar with these things, take a look:

  • My review of Google Reader is here - it's a great way to smack-down a large RSS list and get some of the best bits out of them (I regularly stare down 400-600 items and try to find the 50-100 that are actually useful to me).
  • GMail - I think GMail's "archive + search" beats the old "file into folders" (or, worse, the panic button abdication approach: don't file anything).
    • Relatedly, I have a stack of macros and hacks that I use to make Outlook more productive.
  • 43folders.com - Merlin Mann runs through how to be more productive in general (most tips are about information, attention, & time management)
  • Lifehacker.com - A bit of a grab bag tips for computing, home, and just about anything. Product reviews, DIY hacks, etc.



The Video


Links & Notes


  1. By calling information pricing "arbitrary," I don't mean that it is unreal, shouldn't be there, or somehow random. What I mean is that with anything whose true cost is $0, setting a price is just that: "setting" - selecting, deciding. It may be for good rationale, but for those of us not inside the pricing discussion, it's essentially arbitrary.
  2. In case you're wondering and have read my previous entry on information overload, yes I am trying to use as many cliches as possible when describing this approach (I previously called it "throwing out the baby with the bathwater").

Wednesday, October 01, 2008, 12:00 AM

tagged: informationfiltering, informationoverload