Strategy for dealing with information overload

Clay Shirky gave a thought-provoking presentation “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure.” He argues that information overload is not new. Ever since Gutenberg most people have had access to more information than they could handle. But until recently there were effective mechanisms for filtering this information: social norms, slow communication, etc. The solution is to create new filters. Here are a couple quotes from near the end of his presentation.

We’ve had information overload in some form or another since the 1500’s. What’s changing now is the filters used for most of that 500 year period are breaking. And designing new filters doesn’t mean simply updating the old filters. They’re broken for structural reasons, not surface reasons.

When you feel yourself getting too much information, I think the discipline is not to say to yourself “What’s happened to the information?” but rather “What was I relying on before that stopped functioning?”

(By the way, does anyone else think Clay Shirky looks like Tom Hanks in that video?)

5 thoughts on “Strategy for dealing with information overload

  1. Hi John

    In Timothy Ferriss’s 4 Hour Work Week, he makes many good points about filters.

    For example, do we really need to obsess as much as we do over the news? Some people spend hours glued to CNN when something is “breaking news”, then they watch the re-runs, the analysis and then the weekly summary.

    Ferriss is extreme – he doesn’t watch or read any news. He figures if anything is really important, people will be talking about it. (Too extreme for me, but interesting to consider.)

    I find that the filters in gMail really help me with overload. For the stuff that’s not really important, out of site/out of mind is bliss.

  2. A related issue is filter trust. If you’ve got a filter but keep checking up on it to evaluate how well it’s doing, the filter isn’t going to help your sense of overload very much. At some point you have to accept your filter’s error rate in order to let it reduce your overload.

  3. You made me rethink about my study. I’m getting too much information, but actually it’s not that! I just want to learn everything in this world, therefore, I can’t focus in anything! This is too bad especially if you don’t have that one who guide you to the right way, you actually spend a very long time in useless things, and after a while, you begin to realize that all of this was, …. nothing!

  4. Shirky definitely enables us to think of information overload in simpler terms, but is that really a solution? This strikes me as a reductionism of sorts. In other words – to what extent can the information overload problem be addressed simply through better filtering?

    Not that thinking about it as a filtering problem isn’t a greatly satisfying approach. But then again, to what extent? Any ideas about how to cope with the sheer ‘singularity’ of the information?

    Very interesting post, nevertheless.

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