Information Overload

As humanity steps into the beginning of the 21st century, one of the most important developments connected to our generation is the advancement in Information Technology (IT). Human beings for the first time in history have managed to eliminate geographical distance through the internet, mobile phones, and wireless technology. However, IT does not change many of the underlying principles in the way we do things but IT is like any other ‘tool’ that increases our efficiency, effectiveness, and capacity. For example, the logic and concept of mathematics have rarely changed over the ages but a computer can be programmed to handle complex mathematical problems faster than any human mind in history could.

The rapid development of IT in particular the internet has brought to surface another dormant problem namely the problem of information overload. Information overload refers to the problem associated with advances in technology whereby a company can be a quagmire of information, with employees so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that they are unable to sort out the valuable from the useless. In many ways, the problem of information overload is similar to the denial of service used by hackers to overwhelm networks with false communications and request. But in the case of information overload, it is humans not the servers that are going down.

The World Wide Web although one of the pinnacle of human achievement is full of web pages that contain redundant and inconsistent information. Even when I was researching for material for this article, I was bombarded by thousands of irrelevant websites either with the same information but different authors or on the same subject with different information. Larry Page and Sergey Brin created a partial solution when they co-founded Google. Google uses a mathematical formula (algorithm) that ranked a web page by how many other web pages were linked to it on the assumption that a web page with more links is bound to be more important. The combination of ‘PageRank’ and page content analysis propelled Google into the number one search engine in the world.

The success of Google in providing users with accurate and relevant information only tells us half the story. Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said that as long as you have a computer and know how to type, you can use Google leading to no discrimination in assessing knowledge. But the problem here is even though we have the ability to assess all types of knowledge in the world; it does not mean we can successfully find what we are looking for. Last semester, my management lecturer asked my class to do some research on the expense preference behavior. A handful of students (me included) managed to compile enough information to write a book but we were all baffled and speechless when most of the information we found were labeled as irrelevant or insignificant by my lecturer. Ironically, the answer to the question was inside my text book which could be easily obtained from the college library.

An economist, Fisher Black, describes irrelevant information as “noise” that has virtually no value. I could not agree more. The internet in many ways work in a “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find” approach. The catch is that you must know what you need to ask and what you are seeking for. Keywords that are usually nouns or strong verbs are essential in helping us narrow down the scope and eliminate unwanted information. Similar to mind mapping, the right and appropriate keywords would trigger the right associations with the subject you are looking for and help us get what we want out of the World Wide Web.

Another classic example of information overload could be ironically found in the emergency room in any local hospitals. We take it that with more information, we would be better off at making the correct decisions. However, Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Blink’ shows us quite the opposite: that all that extra information may not be an advantage at all. Surprisingly, it would be more accurate to detect a genuine heart attack from just concentrating on four factors, namely, ECG (electrocardiogram), blood pressure, fluid in the lungs, and unstable angina compared to asking: Where does it hurt? How long have you been experiencing chest pain? Do you exercise? What is your cholesterol level? Do you have diabetes? So on and so forth. The extra information may even be harmful as confuses the issues and overwhelms our ability to incorporate all of it at once.

The problem of information overload contrary to popular belief has been around for quite a long time. Bill Gates (1996) stated that we already cope with an astonishing amount of information by relying on extensive infrastructure like library catalogs, movie reviews, and even the yellow pages. Similar to this, modern books are now normally inclusive of table of contents and an index to help us narrow down on the subject of interest. The internet has revolutionized the sharing of knowledge and information and is a definite paradigm shift in education. But sadly, many of us are still not able to fully reap the benefits that the internet is able to offer us. For some reason, said Sergey Brin, “people underestimate the importance of finding information”. As we venture cautiously into the information age, be reminded that more information do not always lead to better decision making (and better assignments).

Referencing

Bill Gates, (1996), “The Road Ahead,” Penguin Books Ltd. England, pp: 86-96

Gary B. Shelly, Thomas J. Cashman, and Misty E. Vermaat, (2005), “Discovering Computers,” Thomson Learning, Inc, pp: 66-131

John R. Levine, Carol Baroudi, and Margaret Levine Young, (2000), “The Internet for Dummies,” IDG Books Worldwide, Inc, pp: 118-138

Kenneth C. Laudon and Jane P. Laudon, (2007), “Management Information System,” Pearson Education, Inc, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, United States of America, pp: 283

Thomas L. Friedman, (2006), “The World is Flat,” Penguin Books Ltd, England, pp: 178-181

Tony Buzan and Barry Buzan, (2006), “The Mind Map Book,” BBC Active, England pp: 48

Tonya Vinas, “Surviving Information Overload,” Industry Week (April 2003),pp: 24-29

The Economist, (October 30th-November 5th), “Metaphorically Speaking”

The Economist Print Edition, (2007), “Too Much Information,” Available at http://www. economist.com, assessed/retrieved on 12th July 2007

The Economist Print Edition, (2007), “Business in Numbers,” Available at http://www. economist.com, assessed/retrieved on 13th September 2007

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