I spend a lot of time on trains, usually catching up on the papers for the meeting I'm going to, reading reports, writing presentations (often ones I'm on my way to give), and very occasionally trying to get 3 stars on an Angry Birds level. On Tuesday I read an interesting article in The Independent on information, and how we handle it. Entitled Too Much Information, it looked at one of the most commonly moaned about subjects today, Information Overload, and whether it really exists, or is down to "filter failure", or even our feeling that we have to read and consume everything. Definitely worth a read, and it got me thinking.
I hear a lot about Information Overload, but it's not something I've ever noticed. I love information, I have about 30 blogs either bookmarked or on RSS feeds, follow 330 people on Twitter, read a couple of on-line newspapers, keep up to date with Facebook, and occasionally read a real book, you know, one that uses that funny stuff, paper. But, I accept that not everyone is like me. Thank goodness some of you are probably saying. With her blogs, incessant twittering etc she's merely contributing to that information overload.
The article that started me on this post talks about filter failure. We expect and want information to be tailored to us, to be what we want to hear about and read, and nothing else. That's why google have so many algorithms in their search engines, why we use lists and filters on twitter. When some of us get something we don't want we call it spam. Like the staff in this organisation ( a University for heavens sake) who get the odd email inviting them to a seminar they don't want to go to. No matter that our email system can't possibly know who is and who isn't interested in Medieval Genetics, they expect it to. But if everything is filtered and tailored to the nth degree, what happens to serendipity? I delete most seminar and lecture invites (hitting that delete key takes a fraction of a section you know), but just occasionally something leaps out at me, like a recent lecture on Probability and Chance which I went to on the off chance, and thoroughly enjoyed.
Time is another often quoted factor in the information overload debate. I haven't got time to read everything. Well, I don't think you have to read everything. You have to know what you want to read, and prioritise. Someone in this department told me the other day that they didn't have time to read this blog. Now, I don't mind if people tell me they don't want to read it, or they're not interested in it (although woe betide them if they then tell me they don't know what's going on....), but no time? An RSS feed tells you when it's been updated, and at most it takes about 20 seconds to scan the post, and about 2/3 minutes to read, let's be generous and say 5 mins in total. It's not about time, it's about priorities. I've used this blog as an example, but it could be anything.
So, don't moan about information overload, it's here to stay. There's a nice quote in the article about Gutenberg putting the fear of God into scholars in the 15th century when they were suddenly confronted with a choice of books to read. Use filters if you need to and can, ignore what you're not interested in, don't feel you need to read everything, but prioritise what you want to and embrace serendipity.
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