Information explosion is a term used to describe the rapidly increasing amount of published information and the effects of this abundance of data. As the amount of available data grows, managing the information becomes more difficult, which can lead to information overload. Information overload refers to the state of having too much information to make a decision or remain informed about a topic. It is often referred to in conjunction with various forms of computer-mediated communication such as e-mail and the web. The term was coined in 1970 by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock.
The Online Oxford English Dictionary indicates use of the phrase in a March 1964 New Statesman article. The New York Times first used the phrase in its editorial content in an article by Walter Sullivan in June 7, 1964, in which he described the phrase as “much discussed.” The earliest use of the phrase seems to have been in an IBM advertising supplement to the New York Times published on April 30, 1961, and by Frank Fremont-Smith, Director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences Interdisciplinary Conference Program, in an April 1961 article in the AIBS Bulletin. Fortunately, techniques to gather knowledge from an overabundance of electronic information (e.g., data fusion may help in data mining) have existed since the 1970s.
In Future Shock published in 1970, a sociologist and futurologist Alvin Toffler describes the overwhelming flood of information and labeled it as an "information overload." Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a "super-industrial society." This change will overwhelm people because the accelerated rate of technological and social change will leave them disconnected and cause "shattering stress and disorientation"—future shocked. Toffler states that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also coined the term "information overload."
His analysis of that phenomenon is continued in his later publications, especially The Third Wave and Powershift.
The general causes of information overload include:
E-mail remains a major contributor to this information overload, as people struggle to keep up with the rate of incoming messages. As well as filtering out unsolicited commercial messages (spam), users also have to contend with the growing use of e-mail attachments in the form of lengthy reports, presentations and media files.
In the article "Overcoming Information Overload," Richard E. Meyer contrasted e-mail to traditional mail, and points out the increase of its amount and expected speed, and complexity:
The fundamental shift from "snail mail" to e-mail, a technology intended to ease user and management burden, is having quite the opposite effect today as senior executives struggle to gain visibility into and control over the process. It is not unusual to hear of people responding to and managing 150 e-mails daily. During renewal season, an underwriter can easily receive up to 400 e-mails daily. If this were not enough, the pace and speed of doing business has increased tenfold.
With each application creating its own separate location to file information, and each networked system representing a boundary between pieces of information, users are forced to navigate through complex folder structures to file or retrieve their information. The situation is exacerbated for businesses trying to manage information across work groups or spread over geographic locations, where the folder structures become more and more complex. This makes it practically impossible to provide users with uniform access to complete and accurate information in real-time.
A December 2007 New York Times blog post described E-mail as "a $650 Billion Drag on the Economy," and the New York Times reported in April 2008 that "E-MAIL has become the bane of some people’s professional lives" due to information overload, yet "none of [the current wave of high-profile Internet startups focused on email] really eliminates the problem of e-mail overload because none helps us prepare replies".
Technology investors reflect similar concerns.
In addition to e-mail, the World Wide Web has provided access to billions of pages of information. In many offices, workers are given unrestricted access to the Web, allowing them to manage their own research. The use of search engines helps users to find information quickly. However, information published online may not always be reliable, due to the lack of authority-approval or a review process before publication. This results in people having to cross-check what they read before using it for decision-making, which takes up more time.
As people are faced with growing levels of information overload, the inability to make clear and accurate decisions can increase their stress levels.
Part of the problem of information overload can be traced to interruptions in the workplace. Interruptions include incoming e-mail messages, phone calls and instant messaging—all of which break mental focus and redirect it to the source of the interruption. The person has to deal with the interruption, then redirect their attention back to the original task.
In 2005, research firm "Basex" calculated "interruptions now consume an average of 2.1 hours a day, or 28 percent of the workday." including the time of recovery. It estimates the cost of unnecessary interruptions and related recovery time at "$588 billion" per annum in the U.S. alone if it is calculated at $21 per hour rate for average "knowledge workers." That figure was updated to "$650 billion" in early 2007.
Many academics, corporate decision-makers, and federal policy-makers recognize the magnitude and growing impact of this phenomenon.
Recent research suggests that an "attention economy" of sorts will naturally emerge from information overload, allowing Internet users greater control over their online experience with particular regard to communication mediums such as e-mail and instant messaging. This could involve some sort of cost being attached to e-mail messages. For example, managers charging a small fee for every e-mail received (e.g. $5.00) which the sender must pay from their budget. The aim of such charging is to force the sender to consider the necessity of the interruption.
A similar term "information pollution" was coined by Jakob Nielsen. The term "interruption overload" has begun to appear in newspapers such as the Financial Times, which reads:
Not long ago, information overload was the bane of office life - a deluge of data inundating our workstations and destroying our collective productivity. Then we discovered that so much information on the internet was rubbish and that we could safely ignore any e-mail addressed to more than three people. Now, though, there is a new workplace affliction: interruption overload.
People used to be able to interrupt you at work only by phoning or walking into your office. Now they can do so by e-mail, instant messaging, mobile phones (with voice calls and text messages) and BlackBerries or personal digital assistants.
According to Technorati, the number of blogs doubles about every six months with a total of 35.3 million blogs as of April 2006.
All links retrieved April 15, 2014.
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