Category Archives: Cultural change

Has information overload reached a turning point?

I’ve long felt that information overload is a temporary condition. I know it’s hard to think that way when you’re coping with a mountain of emails and Google search results.

But I’m getting the sense that we’ve reached an important milestone in the trajectory of information overload. That perhaps we’ve crested the mountain and are starting to go down the other side.

I’m hearing less about the stress and angst that IO creates and more about solutions—techniques and technologies that people are actually trying. In many cases, they’re feeling more productive and efficient. Not to mention less harried.

Clay Shirky has famously said that information overload is caused by filter failure. Clay Johnson’s new book advises us to go on an information diet. We’re apparently starting to see both better filters and better diets.

Here are some of the indicators:

The End of Information Overload?“—Liz Wilson, staff writer at, says people are reading more, and they’re reading longer pieces.

The Phone Stack“—Cool People Care says the phone stack is catching on. It’s a simple idea: “When you’re out at dinner, after everyone has ordered, each person places their phone in a stack in the middle of the table.”

3 Tools to Store and Search Your Social Media Activity“—The Social Media Examiner extols the virtues of egoArchive, Memolane and Greplin. egoArchive is now called Archify and will enable you to search everything you’ve seen on the web, which can be a huge time saver and result in more successful searches. Archify’s tagline: “What you see is what you search.”

How to manage in-box ‘bacon’“—Chris Gaylord at The Christian Science Monitor offers several filtering techniques to deal with the commercial messages you sort of want (and for the ones you don’t).

Too Much Input and Not Enough ‘Innerput’ Is Bad for Business“—Blogging at the Huffington Post, psychologist Jim Taylor advises setting criteria around the information you’ll consume—and jettisoning that which doesn’t clear the bar.

And end to emails . . . here’s the way“—A state-of-email report from Sydney Morning Herald’s Glenda Kwek. Kwek mentions France’s Atos (74,000 employees), which aims to completely replace email with wikis, instant messaging and other tools. Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. And Stark Insider’s Clinton Stark doubts that email will ever disappear (“Email is dead. Long live email!“).

Not all of those articles include measurable evidence that the world is getting a better handle on information overload. But the scores of comments that accompany some of the pieces are filled with ideas from people who have come up with answers that work.

Have you seen evidence that the dialog is moving away from “Woe is us” to “Here’s how I’m coping?” If so (or if not), the comment box is yours.



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Filed under Cultural change, Email management, Impacts on society, Pearls, Personal productivity

Neil Postman: “Information has become a form of garbage”

My all-time favorite social critic is NYU Professor Neil Postman. I recently rediscovered his thought-provoking book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I want to share his take on information overload:

In the United States, we have 260,000 billboards; 11,250 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 video outlets for renting video tapes; more than 500 million radios; and more than 100 million computers. Ninety-eight percent of American homes have a television set; more than half our homes have more than one. There are 40,000 new book titles published every year (300,000 worldwide), and every day in America 41 million photographs are taken. And if this is not enough, more than 60 billion pieces of junk mail (thanks to computer technology) find their way into our mail-boxes every year.

From millions of sources all over the globe, through every possible channel and medium — light waves, airwaves, ticker tapes, computer banks, telephone wires, television cables, satellites, printing presses — information pours in. Behind it, in every imaginable form of storage — on paper, on video and audio tape, on discs, film, and silicon chips — is an ever greater volume of information waiting to be retrieved. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we are awash in information. And all the sorcerer has left us is a broom.

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.

All of this has called into being a new world. I have referred to it elsewhere as a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is an improbable world. It is a world in which the idea of human progress, as Bacon expressed it, has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies. We tell ourselves, of course, that such accomodations will lead to a better life, but that is only the rhetorical residue of a vanishing technocracy.

We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.

The late Dr. Postman published those words in 1992, before most people had even heard of the World Wide Web. The more things change . . .


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No more email in 3 years? Good luck with that

Atos Origin, a 49,000-person IT services firm based outside Paris, is boldly going where no company—IT or otherwise—has gone before. CEO Thierry Breton plans to eliminate internal email by this time in 2014.

According to Computerworld UK, Breton aims to become a “zero email company” to conquer the information pollution that bogs down management and costs the company dearly:

Breton said information pollution, or data overload, needed to be addressed by companies. “We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives.”

He added: “We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organisations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.”

Breton said the volume of emails Atos sent and received was “unsustainable for business”. He said managers currently spent between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails. They were already using social media networking more than search, and spent 25 percent of their time searching for information.

More from Breton: “Email is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business.”

What will replace it at Atos Origin? The latest in social media and collaboration tools such as Office Communicator (and presumably others to be identified or created). Nathan Zeldes, president of the Information Overload Research Group, is convinced that Atos Origin will pull this off. He contends in his latest newsletter that Breton’s clout as CEO will provide the impetus, and the company’s staff will find ways to make it happen. [Nathan’s newsletter differs from his blog and is well worth reading. You can subscribe to it here.]

I’m not so sure. Atos Origin will still need email to connect with the “outside world” (at least until everyone else gets on the zero email bus). In addition, email as we know it is evolving rapidly—becoming more social and integrated with other technologies. It will almost certainly become more efficient and less of a productivity drain within three years—at least at companies willing to make the change.

One of the companies moving us in that direction is Blue Sky Factory. CEO Greg Cangialosi says “the inbox is being reinvented and is becoming the platform.” He also says email is not going to go away: “The email address is still the way we identify and connect . . . Other communities will never replace the platform role that our inbox serves.” [Read more at Baltimore’s CityBizList.]


Filed under Cultural change, Email management, Personal productivity

The information elephant

If you’re here, I’m pretty sure it’s because you’re feeling the effects of information overload.  We’re going to embark on a journey to find and share some answers.

What makes me an expert on information overload?  I’m not a technologist, although I use lots of technology every day.  I’m not a researcher, although I embrace the value of data.  I’m a communicator.  I’ve spent time as a journalist, a political press secretary, an employee communications manager, a partner in a marketing firm, and a communications consultant.  About five years ago, I began to see that information overload was interfering with the communicating I was trying to do inside organizations.

Two things smacked me in the head and made me realize it was a lot bigger than that.  One occurred when I was waiting for an appointment at a PR firm.  I spotted a memo from the CFO on the bulletin board.  He said that if everyone in the firm spent an hour less per day processing email, they’d free up $1 million a year.  That was certainly serious coin.

A short time later, I was flying home next to a young woman who worked as a recruiter for a large software company.  She was about to have a meltdown.  She spent most of the flight trying to make her way through scores of emails she had downloaded shortly before takeoff . . . practically in tears . . . knowing that she’d have another huge batch awaiting her upon landing.  I’ve often wondered if she followed through on her inclination to seek another career.

It had become apparent to me that information overload was much more than an inconvenience to communicators.  It would require an all-out assault by Communications, HR and IT organizations to rid work environments of this scourge.

Early in 2007, I was involved in a two-day discussion at Microsoft Research involving about 30 researchers, technologists and deep thinkers from Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Google, Morgan Stanley, Stanford University, UC Irvine, and other organizations large and small.  I was the only communications guy in the room.  I signed on to help make something happen, and a year later we incorporated the Information Overload Research Group.  In July 2008, IORG held its first conference in New York and is now focusing on online events.  You can read my hopes for the group here.

I’ve also written two articles about IO:

The Staggering Cost of Information Overload” for the International Association of Business Communicators’ Communication World Online

Email Overload:  The Elephant in the Room” for the Journal of Employee Communications Management, republished by Communitelligence

While IORG is busy creating a comprehensive repository of research on information overload, I want to jump-start the spread of solutions.  Here are my goals for this blog:

1.  If you set out to solve the information overload problem in your organization, where do you begin?  TMI is intended to share what works.  Some of what works involves technology.  Some includes better strategies for managing incoming information.  And some centers on changing the behavior of information-sharers to more thoughtfully consider the “tragedy of the commons.”

2.  This blog is designed to serve as a bridge between the communications profession and those who are actively working to solve the problem.  Communicators are all affected by information overload—but there’s not nearly enough discussion about it within the profession.  Not all IO is related to communications . . . but communicators have a major role to play in strategizing (and then communicating about) the solution.

3.  TMI will offer ideas for individuals trying to simply keep up.  How do you cope with the riding tide of information?  What should you expect of yourself?  When is it OK to turn off and tune out?

4.  Finally, if we do our job, we’ll also broaden the conversation.  Most discussions about information overload have focused on business productivity.  Fair enough.  My friends at Basex say it costs the U.S. economy $900 billion a year (article at Huffington Post).  That merits the attention of everyone.  But what other impacts—and high costs—come with information overload?  What are its effects on government, academia, medicine, law, science, religion, marketing, journalism, media . . . and the resulting social costs?  What are the unintended consequences of potential solutions?

So we’re off and running.  Will adding to information overload help solve it?  We’ll see . . . .

Posted by Bill Boyd

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Filed under Attention mangement, Communications, Cultural change, Email management, Financial impacts