On the Overloading of Information

Jonathon Delacour asks a poignant question:

who else feels overwhelmed by the volume of information we expect ourselves to absorb and process every day? And how do you manage to deal with it?

Judging from the comments, his post has obviously struck a chord with his readers, myself included. I am once again reminded of Neal Stephenson’s original minimalist homepage in which he speaks of his ongoing struggle against what Linda Stone termed as “continuous partial attention,” for that is the way in which modern life must be for a great deal of us.

I am often overwhelmed by a desire to consume various things – books, movies, music, etc… The subject of such things is also varied and, as such, often don’t mix very well. That said, the only thing I have really found that works is to align those subjects that do mix in such a way that they overlap. This is perhaps the only reason blogging has stayed on my plate for so long: since the medium is so free-form and since I have absolute control over what I write here and when I write it, it is easy to align my interests in such a way that they overlap with my blog (i.e. I write about what interests me at the time). I have been doing so for almost three and a half years, more or less, and the blog as it now exists barely resembles what it once did. This is, in part, because my interests have shifted during that time. There was a period of about a year in which blogging was very sparse indeed, but before I tackle that, I wish to backtrack a bit.

As I mentioned, this subject has struck a chord with a great deal of people, and the most common suggestion for how to deal with such a quandry is a form of information filtering. Usually this takes the form of a rather extreme and harsh filtering system – namely removing one source of information entirely. Delacour speaks of a friend who only recently bought a television and vcr, and even then he only did so so that his daughters could watch videos a few times a week. The complete removal of one source of information seems awfully drastic to me, though I suppose I’ve done so from time to time. For about a year, I had not bought or sought out any new music, only recently emerging from this out of boredom. It was a conscious decision to remove music from my sphere of learning, though I continued to listen to and very much enjoy music. I simply didn’t understand music the way I understood film or literature (inasmuch as I understand either of those) and didn’t want to burden myself overinterpreting yet another medium. Even as it stands now, I’m not too concerned over what I’m listening too, as long as it keeps my attention during a rather long commute.

Some time ago, I used to blog a lot more often than I do now. And more than that, I used to read a great deal of blogs, especially new blogs (or at least blogs that were new to me). Eventually this had the effect of inducing a sort of ADD in me. I consumed way too many things way too quickly and I became very judgemental and dismissive. There were so many blogs that I scanned (I couldn’t actually read them, that would take too long for marginal gain) that this ADD began to spread across my life. I could no longer sit down and just read a book, even a novel.

Eventually, I recognized this, took a bit of a break from blogging, and attempted to correct, with some success. I have since returned to blogging, albeit at a slower pace, and have taken measures against falling into that same trap, though only with limited success. I have come to the conclusion that I can only do one major internet endeavor at a time. During the period of slow blogging, I turned my attention towards Everything 2 (a sort of online collaborative encyclopedia), but I have found that as I returned to blogging, I could not find time for E2, unless they somehow overlapped (as they do, from time to time). Likewise, I cannot devote much time to discussion of various subjects at various forums if I am blogging or noding (as posting at E2 is called). Delacour’s description of his own quandry is somewhat accurate in my case as well:

Self-employment, a constant Internet connection, a weblog, and a mildly addictive personality turn out to be a killer combination-even for someone who no longer feels compelled to post regularly, let alone every day.

So the short answer to Delacour’s question of how do people deal with information overload is of course filtering. It is the manner and degree to which we filter that is important. And of course it must be said that any filtering system which you set up must be dynamic – it must change as you change and the world changes. It is a challenge to find the right balance, and it is also a challenge to keep that balance.


An interesting post-script to this is that I ran across Delacour’s post several weeks ago, and am only coming to post about it today. Make of that what you will.

In any case, I’d like to turn my attention to another of Delacour’s posts, titled I’ll link to whoever he’s linking to, in which he talks a lot about what drives people to link other blogs on their blog. It is an exceptional analysis and well worth reading in it’s entirety. At one point, he points to “six principles of persuasion” (as defined by a Psychology professor in the context of cult recruitment) and applies those principles to weblogs and blogrolls with some success. This has prompted some thought on my part, and I have decided to update the blogroll. As you might guess, a number of the six principles of persuasion are at work in my blogroll, but I would note that the most accurate in my case are “liking” (as in, the reason all of those links are there is because I like them and read them regularly – indeed, it is almost there out of a pragmatic want of having the most common sites I visit linked from one place) and “Commitment and Consistency.” By far the least important is the “Social Proof” principle which states that “In a given situation, our view of whether a particular behavior is correct or not is directly proportional to the number of other people we see performing that behaviour” or, applied to blogs, “If all those other people have X on their blogrolls, then he definitely should be on my blogroll.”

In fact, I had updated the blogroll somewhat recently already. One of the blogs I added then was the Belmont Club, which has enjoyed a certain amount of noteriety lately, thanks in part to Steven Den Beste (who, interestingly enough, had promted Delacour’s post about linking in the first place). So Belmont Club went from a relatively obscure excellent blog to a blog that is well known and now highly linked to. Believe it or not, this has weighed unfavorably upon my decision to keep Belmont Club on the blogroll. I have opted to do so for now because my “liking” that blog far outweighs my distaste for “social proof.” In any case, the blogroll will be updated shortly, with but a few new blogs…

I find both of these subjects (information overload and linking) to be interesting, so I may spend some time later this week hashing out a little more about both subjects… or perhaps not – perhaps some other interest will gain favor in my court. We shall see, I suppose.