Information overload: Is there a breaking point?

  • The common view (that I’ve written about before) is that we’re reaching an information overload breaking point
  • But it turns out that humans have been complaining consistently about information overload since at least the 15th century
  • Information overload is very real at an individual level, but each generation deals better than the past. So good individual coping strategies are more important than system wide responses

Two men on Northwest Airlines aircraft, one using typewriter, with female flight attendant in background

The common view is that we’re about to hit breaking point for executive information overload

I talk about information overload a lot with Australian executives. I’ve never had a high level exec tell me that they’re not suffering from information/email overload.

I know that if I want to get a group of executives nodding along all I need to do is show this chart from Boston Consulting Group:
BCG complexity index

It always gets us onto talking about how the current rate of  growth in complexity and information just can’t continue.

The conversation typically goes something like this:

  • “Look at the growth in complexity, it’s exponential!”
  • “That’s what it feels like trying to keep up with emails on a day-to-day basis”
  • “Growth in complexity just can’t continue at this rate. It’s just not possible”
  • “Humans aren’t like computers that obey Moore’s law. We can’t just upgrade – we’ve got basically fixed cognitive capacity”
  • “Something has to change dramatically soon, because we’re about to hit a breaking point”

I call this the ‘breaking-point’ argument. It’s a very easy argument to make. It’s an argument that I’ve been making almost weekly for the past couple of years.

But over the past few months I’ve been questioning how valid this ‘breaking-point’ argument really is. Because it turns out that humans have been consistently complaining about “too much information” since the 15th century.

Humans have been complaining about information overload since the 15th century

The first person to make a serious argument about the dangers of Information overload was Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner, as reported in a great article by Slate:

“In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information  unleashed by the printing press.”

And pretty much every generation since has argued that the ‘floods’ of information unleashed by some form of new technology will bankrupt society. Here’s a few more examples from TechDirt:

“these sorts of complaints about new technology happen  throughout history, such as the attacks on the telephone (makes men lazy and breaks up your home life) and novels (corrupts the mind). But sometimes it goes back much, much further. In the past, we’ve even  joked  about those “poor monks” put out of the scribe business by the printing press.”

By reading more and more of this research, you start to sense that this ‘information overload’ reaction happens every generation. With every new form of technology.

There’s no absolute information overload. It’s just our perception of the relative information growth.

I think the easiest way to understand what’s happening here is described by Douglas Adams, talking about society’s reaction to new technology:

“1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

The biggest insight for me is that these rules don’t just apply to technologies, but also the information burden created by them. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

As humans we’ve been dealing with these huge increases in information burden / distraction load for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And we haven’t reached a breaking point (at a society wide level) yet. To my mind, this makes it pretty unlikely that we’re going to do so in any of our lifetimes.

As we individually get older, we’ll find the increasing ‘distraction load’ harder and harder to deal with. But to someone born today, this distraction load is normal and natural. As Adams puts it, it is a “natural part of the way the world works”.

The ‘normal’ level of information burden (distraction load) resets every generation

Today’s students are studying through huge distraction loads. If you’re a student today, and you’re going to be successful whilst studying on a computer and phone equipped with 10-20+ social networks and chat apps.

Today’s educational environment is actively preparing tomorrow’s executives for increased distraction loads. If you succeed in a secondary/tertiary environment today, it’s because you’re capable of multitasking, not because you’re capable of exclusion. That’s 10+ years of multitasking training that today’s current generation of executives never had.

So the highest performers emerging from schools and universities are those who are naturally the best equipped to deal with the information burden of today’s workforce. There’s a constant reset in the information load that’s normal (and the skill set that leads to success). So we always tend to see the next generation of executives better equipped to deal with the information burden than the generation past.

We need to look for individual coping strategies, not macro ‘solutions’

Over the long term, it’s easy to see how the executive ranks evolve to deal with greater and greater information volumes. Those who are the best at dealing with the current floods of information are the most likely to be selected into the best graduate programs and progress at the fastest rate.

However this doesn’t solve the issue for senior executives today. But I do think here we do well to focus on individual coping strategies, rather than ‘whole of organisation’ solutions.

Because with hindsight and some context, macro level regulatory responses just seem silly. Germany’s proposed email ban is basically the equivalent of regulating book length at 50 pages. It sounds absurd to regulate the length of books now – but 500 years ago this could have been just as rational as imposing arbitrary limits on communication growth today.

One coping strategy that I’ve seen more and more companies adopting is the mindfulness/meditation path. I spoke at length last year to Radek Sali (CEO at Swisse) about the benefits of meditation for Swisse executives.

We are seeing the current generation of executives reach breaking point. But the next generation will be better and better equipped.

To sum up my current thinking on information overload:

  • Information overload is always very real for the current generation of executives. It’s because the information load in the world has significantly increased by age 45 (relative to the coping skills you built early in life).
  • Information overload never exists at a whole of society level. Generations naturally evolve to deal with more and more information. Those who are the best at dealing with larger volumes of information do the best in schools and universities, and as a result move to the highest roles in the next generation of business.

So we’re not reaching a society wide breakpoint. We’re simply doing what every generation has done since the 1500’s and significantly increasing communication volume and workload. Whilst there will always be information overload at an individual executive level, the next generation of executives will always be gifted with better capacity to deal with increasing information volumes.

  • Steve,
    Good article and I completely agree with your sentiments.

    People keep complaining about “information overload” and how we have so much more information today then ever. It is true that as a society we are “producing” an incredible amount of information, orders of magnitude more then in past decades.

    However, through my research (which focuses on Email Overload), discussions with other information overload researchers, and personal observations, I believe the issue is not so much the quantity of information, but rather the fracturing of our attentions through the multiple media channels and their constant interruptions. For the past several decades, you have been able to go to a library and have more information then you could ever consume. The information has always been there.

    The primary issues are with respect to the cognitive challenges in filtering, organizing, ignoring, and sorting through all of our “noisy” media sources. This is not so much a technological or societal issue, but rather a primarily behavioral and cognitive issue. There was a time when I worked in an office with a telephone that would ring, a stack of reports to read, and a few meetings to attend. I would focus my attention on each item, one at a time, and accomplish my work. Now, we have desktop computers that can instantly pull us to check our Emails, shop, check on social events, perform our banking, and so on. And the old, simple “flip phones” of past have morphed into multi-use devices that are cameras / Email devices / video recorders / gaming devices / socializing devices / navigation devices / make reservations / and, oh yeah.. make the occasional phone call.

    The solution is to incorporate behavioral and cognitive training early on to individuals and teach them how to focus, how to prioritize, how to isolate, and how to be productive. This means “disconnecting” so you can focus and be productive.

    I’m not anti-technology. In fact, I think technology is neat and love it.
    But we must learn to be the masters of our devices, instead of letting our devices master us.


    Dr. Michael Einstein

    • Steve Pell

      Thanks for the comment Michael. I agree – the solution must be behavioural, not systemic.