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Situational Versus Ambient Information Overload; Filters as the Solution

Posted Mar 11 2011 12:00am

Let me say at the outset that the condition of information overload has never been a problem for me personally except in my medical school years. It existed at that time for two reasons: I had no control over the information flow presented to me and I also understood that much of it (e.g., gross anatomy) was largely useless. Clay Shirky launched the idea in 2008 that there is no such thing as information overload but rather a situation that can be easily managed by the use of information filters. I agree with him. Nick Carr recently presented a new slant on this question (see: Situational overload and ambient overload ). Below is an excerpt from his blog note:

Information overload actually takes two forms, which I'll call situational overload and ambient overload, and they need to be treated separately. Situational overload is the needle-in-the-haystack problem: You need a particular piece of information - in order to answer a question of one sort or another - and that piece of information is buried in a bunch of other pieces of information. The challenge is to pinpoint the required information, to extract the needle from the haystack, and to do it as quickly as possible. Filters have always been pretty effective at solving the problem of situational overload....Situational overload is not the problem. When we complain about information overload, what we're usually complaining about is ambient overload. This is an altogether different beast. Ambient overload doesn't involve needles in haystacks. It involves haystack-sized piles of needles. We experience ambient overload when we're surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the never ending pressure of trying to keep up with it all. We keep clicking links, keep hitting the refresh key, keep opening new tabs, keep checking email in-boxes and RSS feeds, keep scanning Amazon and Netflix recommendations - and yet the pile of interesting information never shrinks. The cause of situational overload is too much noise. The cause of ambient overload is too much signal....It's a mistake, in short, to assume that as filters improve they have the effect of reducing the information we have to look at. As today's filters improve, they expand the information we feel compelled to take notice of....Bottom line: When the amount of information available to be filtered is effectively unlimited, as is the case on the Net, then every improvement in the quality of filters will make information overload worse.

As is usually the case, Nick and Clay Shirkey have latched onto a very important idea. Nick previously raised one of the most important recent questions in information theory -- whether Google (i.e., efficient web search) was making us stupid. This question can be stated in a less provocative way by asking whether web search is modifying the way our brains work. I like Nick's distinction above between situational and ambient information overload. However and in order to avoid the stress of informational overload, I myself seem to instinctively respond by installing more efficient information filters until the amount of information presented to me throughout the day seems to be just right. Information filters (i.e., rules) protect my mind in same way, to continue the metaphor, that physical filters protect steam engines from exploding by venting excess steam.

In Twitter, the subscriber is given the opportunity to put filters in place by choosing the people/organizations he or she wants to follow and therefore able to scan the tweets they post. I unfollow those people who post what I consider to be uninteresting information. I would thus add to Nick's concept the following idea: filters are only as useful and efficient as the willingness of individuals to use them. Having done so, the anxiety of information overload can then be partly ameliorated. I believe that some people choose to not use them because they like the rush of information overload. In other words, they complain about information oveload but actually thrive on it or are "addicted" to it.

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