Information Addiction Is a Real Problem

We're not doctors, but notwithstanding the precise medical definition of "addiction," it's clear that many email and BlackBerry users exhibit symptoms that are markedly similar to those of an addict. Examples include repeatedly checking for email when you should know you're not in wireless range, living in a constant state of self-inflicted interruption from checking email, or reading email when you should be concentrating on something else (e.g., driving or spending time with your family).

What does this behavior mean for business productivity? What are the costs? What are the impacts on the individual "addict"?

With the ever-increasing rate of "progress," information overload is only getting worse. Email addiction is the most obvious result, but the ever-broadening maze of social networking tools plays a part -- for example, instant messaging, Facebook, LinkedIn, newsgroups, weblogs, and wikis. The problem here is not the technology per se. Rather, it's the underlying behavior associated with the addict's ravenous desire for information. Not to mention the fallout when people can't keep up with the rate at which information comes their way, or when that information is inaccessible.

Businesses end up paying the costs associated with information overload and information addiction. There is a real need in the industry for more tools to help end users deal with this overload. Addicts need tools and programs to help them recognize their addictions, and start taking steps to overcome them. Power users need better tools to manage the information coming their way. And company management needs to start making hard decisions around the plethora of tools that have crept into the enterprise arena and which are costing companies substantially in lost productivity.

Aren't these tools useful? Sure they are, but they are just that -- tools, to be used or abused. End users need to be educated and equipped in how best to manage information in a manner that most benefits their employers. While the need to "be in the loop" has some truth to it, there comes a point where enough is enough.

... David Sengupta

One Comment

  1. Donald Whytock
    Posted December 14, 2007 at 10:18 AM | Permalink

    I did a paper relatively recently on information overload. In the research I was trying to determine exactly what causes a tendency to suck in all the information and stimuli available, over and above the idea that it wasn’t here yesterday and is today.

    I don’t believe that’s the problem. I don’t think the problem is that the mass of input wasn’t there yesterday; I think the problem is that it hasn’t been there for thousands of years.

    The principle of cultural evolution suggests that a culture includes the mechanisms the people in that culture use to deal with the environment around them. A given member of a community grows up with this set of tools, and adopts them to his needs; if he runs into a situation the tools don’t cover, he has to come up with solutions of his own.

    Since this is harder to do the longer one is immersed in a culture, it’s typically the younger members whose thinking is still flexible that come up with responses to new situations. So when a significant change comes, it can be a generation or two before the community can adequately deal with it.

    There have been other significant changes, with accompanying problems. The development of agriculture took people from the problem of scrounging for food to the problem of storing it. Industrialization brought on pollution. And now, information technology, ironically, is supplying too much information.

    This is a very new problem for our civilization. Since recorded history (and, by definition, before that), up until the last century, we’ve had something of a drought of information. It was typical to wait for days, even months, to find out what was happening in another city or country. The habits we built up to deal with this was to take in as much information as could be gotten. Over time, those habits have become very deeply ingrained.

    The result is that, after growing up listening with all our might, someone is now shouting in our ear.

    We’re starting to see the creation of tools to deal with information input — filters, feeds, portals, etc. We’re starting to see kids condensing information in their communications, and gleaning bits and pieces and factoids from multiple sources. The new cultural tools and coping mechanisms are coming. They just might not come soon enough for current sufferers.

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