Can we escape from information overload?

Tom Lamont at 1843 (Economist): “…Information overload was a term coined in the mid-1960s by Bertram Gross, an American social scientist. In 1970 a writer called Alvin Toffler, who was known at the time as a dependable futurist – someone who prognosticated for a living – popularised the idea of information overload as part of a set of bleak predictions about eventual human dependence on technology. (Good call, Alvin.) Information overload can occur in man or machine, wrote another set of academics in a 1977 study, “when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity”. Then came VHS, home computers, the internet, mobile phones, mobile-phones-with-the-internet – and waves of anxiety that we might be reaching the limits of our capacity.

A study in 2011 found that on a typical day Americans were taking in five times as much information as they had done 25 years earlier – and this was before most people had bought smartphones. In 2019 a study by academics in Germany, Ireland and Denmark identified that humans’ attention span is shrinking, probably because of digital intrusion, but was manifesting itself both “online and offline”.

By that time an organisation called the Information Overload Research Group had done a study which estimated that hundreds of billions of dollars were being shucked away from the American economy every year, in miscellaneous productivity costs, by an overload of data. The group had been co-founded in 2007 by a computer engineer-turned-consultant, Nathan Zeldes, who had once been asked by Intel, a computer-chip maker, to reduce the burden of email imposed on its workers. By the end of 2019 Zeldes was ready to sound a note of defeat. “I’d love to give you a magic potion that would restore your attention span to that of your grandparents,” he wrote in a blog, “but I can’t. After over a decade of smartphone use and social media, the harm is probably irreversible.” He advised people to take up a hobby.

In an age of overload it can feel as though technology has rather chanced its luck. Pushed too much, too far, bone-deep. Even before coronavirus spread across the world, parts of the culture had started to tack towards isolation and deprivation as desirable lifestyle signifiers, hot-this-year, as if some time spent alone and without a device was the new season’s outfit, the next Cronut, another twerk.

Before a pandemic limited the appeal of wallowing in someone else’s tepid water, flotation-tank centres were opening all over London. In the Czech Republic there are spas that sell clients a week in the dark in shuttered, serviced suites. “Social distancing is underrated,” Edward Snowden tweeted, deadpan, in March 2020: a corona-joke, but one that will have spoken to the tech bros of Silicon Valley, for whom retreats were the treat of choice.

Recently, I saw that a person called Celine in San Francisco had tweeted to her 2,500-odd followers about the difficulty of “trying to date SF guys in between their week-long meditation retreats, Tahoe weekends, month-long remote work sessions…” About 4,000 people tapped to endorse the sentiment, launching Celine onto an exponential number of strangers’ screens, including my own. The default sound for any new tweet is a whistle, somewhere between a neighbourly “yoo-hoo” and a dog-walker’s call to heel.

Hilda Burke, a British psychotherapist who has written about smartphone addiction, told me that part of the problem in this age of overload is the yoo-hooing insistence with which each new parcel of information seeks our attention. Speakers chime. Pixelated columns shuffle urgently or icons bounce, as if to signal that here is the fire. Our twitch response to urgency is triggered, in bad faith.

When Celine’s tweet whistled onto my phone one idle Friday I couldn’t understand why I found it mildly stressful to read. Was it that it made me feel old? That I already had enough to think about? Eventually I realised that, for me, every tweet is a bit stressful. Every trifling, whistling update that comes at us, Burke said, “is like a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing. The body springs to attention, ready to run or fight, and for nothing that’s worth it. This is confusing.”…(More)”