Information Overload

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The CIA Model of Information Security consists of three components for correctly protecting information.

Information overload (also known as “information glut”, “infobesity”, and “information anxiety”) refers to the mental exhaustion that comes from being exposed to too much information. This exposure leads to an increased difficulty in the comprehension of an issue. In today's technological era where there is a growing abundance of data and information online, this issue is only becoming more prevalent. People often feel overwhelmed when trying to gather information because it is difficult to filter or reduce the pool of information to make it more digestible. Luciano Floridi discusses the overwhelming nature of information overload and notes that, “…at a certain point the system does not absorb anything”. In this case, humans are considered the ‘system’ for they have a limited capacity to absorb and process information.

Modern technological systems has been a driving force in accommodating the large amounts of data that are accessible for personal and organizational use information technology. While algorithms and filters allow people to manage the large quantities of information that they are presented, there still are ethical implications - hinderance in an individual's ability to make informed decisions. Moreover, as a result of one's effort to reduce information overload, they might find him/herself in a filter bubble (or an echo chamber) - which has proven to be dangerous.


Early Information Preservation

Information preservation has been prevalent since its emphasis by Renaissance humanists. This primarily follows Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and its ability of the general public accessing information that can't be obtained in a short period of time. Within the 1700’s a growing concern developed pertaining to the increasing availability of books. Specifically, within Germany, France, and England as there was a significant surge of the production of books from 1750 to 1800: an increase of 150%. Christian Thomasius argued that the standards of the books being published were decreasing as there was a large volume being produced. [1]. This depletion of book standards may be considered as the first observed setback due to information overload.

Computing Era

Over the last fifty years, there has been an information explosion. The first time this term was used was in a New York Times article in 1964 when author Walter Sullivan described that there was much to be discussed involving this phrase and its dominance in an emerging information culture[2]. Information today is stored through computer hard drives which allows an exponential increase in the amount of information that is being preserved and consumed. Between 1983 and 2000, the amount of rigid disk drive space sold per year went from 90 terabytes to over 2.8 million terabytes. Despite the data increase of over 30,000%, the adult population in the world went from approximately 4.5 billion to 6 billion - only a 33% increase.[3]

Social Media and the Digital Age

Information overload worsened because of the easy access to social media, email, text messaging, news, and etc. Studies have shown that in 2018 the typical smartphone user checked their phone 47 times per day on average, spending just under three hours using smartphones and over four and a half hours when factoring in smart tablet usage[4]. Digital technology affordances such as attention grabbing notifications, ubiquity, and mobility can assist in information overload.

Archivability can also add to information overload. Recently, the digital age has seen the introduction of cloud storage and constantly improving disk storage technology. Cloud storage enables users to store information within a network medium instead of tangible disk space, making it available to them any time they have access to the network, typically the Internet[5]. This technology is eliminating the need for smaller physical data storage units - flash drives, SD cards, and portable hard drives. Prominent examples of cloud storage include Google Drive, iCloud, and Microsoft Cloud. Likewise, technology for tangible storage space continues to improve, with data storage giants Micron and SanDisk releasing the first ever 1 terabyte micro SD cards in February of 2019[6].

In addition to the increase in information storage in the digital age, the fast and innovative sharing process makes data much more accessible. The new communication outlets make transfer of information faster and more frequent. With the click of a button, information can be shared to millions of people across a network that expands worldwide. Because of the ease to which data can be shared, a lot less thought goes into the message, and information overload of useless data circulating occurs.

Ethical Issues

Endless Connectivity

Endless connectivity is defined as the inability to disconnect from information and communication technologies (aka ICTs). A prime example of this can be seen in the workplace where many employees are still answering emails, calls, and messages even when they psychically left the office. It has been suspected that the reason for this is that people want to alleviate themselves from the painful experience of wasting time when they return back to work from the weekend or vacation by looking through an inbox of mindless and meaningless emails, voicemails, and chat messages. Also, people have a hard time differentiating between urgent and mundane matters so they cannot control the urge to stay attached to their technological devices at all times. Because of this issue, there is a trend towards a decrease in true productivity and an increase in burnt-out employees. It is argued that as technology advances it is unlikely that technology will offer ways to save its users from the relentless barrage. It is up to the users themselves to recognize and decide which information to search for as there are no options to filter through it in a customized way. [7]

Intelligence Source and Information Reliability

The internet is supposed to be the great equalizer, making knowledge accessible to everyone and allowing everyone to have a voice. The trade-off is that it became harder to differentiate between what's factual or not in the mist of the noise.[8]

Source Reliability[9]

Rating Description
A Reliable No doubt about the source's authenticity, trustworthiness, or [1]. History of complete reliability.
B Usually reliable Minor doubts. History of mostly valid information.
C Fairly reliable Doubts. Provided valid information in the past.
D Not usually reliable Significant doubts. Provided valid information in the past.
E Unreliable Lacks authenticity, trustworthiness, and competency. History of invalid information.
F Reliability unknown Insufficient information to evaluate reliability. May or may not be reliable.

Information Reliability[9]

Rating Description
1 Confirmed by independent Sources Logical, consistent with other relevant information, confirmed by independent sources.
2 Probably true Logical, consistent with other relevant information, not confirmed.
3 Possibly true Reasonably logical, agrees with some relevant information, not confirmed.
4 Doubtful Not logical but possible, no other information on the subject, not confirmed.
5 Improbable Not logical, contradicted by other relevant information.
6 Difficult to say The validity of the information can not be determined.

Internet Reliability Controversy

The average person has access to billions of publications which is attached with their own biases and political affiliations. The accuracy and credibility of these publications have become increasingly questionable.This idea of “fake news” is one that has gained traction and has contributed to feelings of anxiety, confusion and overwhelm when taking in information. The onus has shifted onto the users (and away from the sources) to read with a critical perspective and question the credibility of sources, texts and publications.

Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman.

Ethical Implications

The main ethical concern regarding information overload is the concept that the average person's ability to make decision is tampered due to the overwhelming amount of information that is available to them. This increase in information is caused by the misalignment of the rate at which digital information is being produced and the rate at which individuals can process information. There soon develops a "poverty of attention". [10]

Luciano Floridi discusses the ethical implications of having access to a plethora of public information. He acknowledges a greater discussion of privacy concerns dealing with individuals in public groups. He questions, "does respect for individual's privacy require respect for privacy of the group to which the individual belongs to?"[11].

With an abundance of different sources of information online, it is possible to remain in an information bubble. For example, Shirley Chapian exists in a far right echo chamber, where she receives and shares information exclusively from far right sources. [12] These echo chambers are used to strength existing biases. Eli Pariser calls these information bubbles "filter bubbles" -the bubble that users get stuck in when they used too many filters. Filter bubbles cause the users to filter their results to narrow them down to the point that they do not encounter information that challenges their current perspective. Filter bubbles are created as a result of of information overload, therefore further proving the growing importance of tackling this issue.


Social Withdrawl

Within the realm of shared content, social networking platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat served as significant contributors to the amount of information individual users are subjected to on a daily basis. As users grow connected to increasing amounts of content, they are engaging more with their devices than they are in the real world, resulting in social withdrawal. To combat this issue, there has been a popularized call to action to reduce the amount of time spent on social media and mobile devices.

Recently, Apple introduced a "Screen Time" functionality which aims to help users so they are more aware of how much time they are spending on the consumption of social media content. This built-in feature allows users to track and limit the time spent on their phone. Similar tracking exists for Androids but it must be downloaded by a third-party application [13]. Screen Time allows users to see how many times they can pick up their phone, how many notifications they receive per application, and how much time they spend on each application. Within this feature, users are able to limit the time they spend on particular apps and place restrictions on certain content that is deemed "inappropriately."

Similarly, users can reduce information overload on their their apple devices by turning on the Do Not Disturb feature which blocks notifications from coming through for a set period of time. Users can choose to turn off notifications for certain applications, or choose which types of notifications they receive from apps like Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Adjusting to Information Overload

This recent decade has shown a surge in the demand for techniques and methods to adjust to the intensified amount of information. Given the nature of this topic, there are two ways that an individual can choose to deal with it: (1) he/she can attempt to reduce the amount of information that is incoming or (2) he/she can expand upon his/her ability to sift through and process information. With respect to a reduction in information, minimizing the number of notifications that an individual receives may reduce the overwhelming amount of “noise” that an individual is subject to. [14].

Richard Saul Wurman describes the issue of information overload as being one of the organization of information, rather than an issue of there being too much information available. This “information anxiety” is the result of a disorganization of complex data as well as the average person not being “information literate” in their ability to process and interpret an abundance of information.

In David Weinberg’s book, Too Big To Know[15], he emphasizes that filters contribute to information overload. Rather than filtering out information, filters now "filter forward" and guide users to even more information. Information Management has gained its relevance as an organizational priority due to the fact that it adds efficiency to the process of creating relevance to (and the transformation of data to) information.

Criticisms/Potential Benefits

The dystopic view of information overload is not the whole story. The increase in available information can be recognized as a power for good rather than potential negatives like a sense of overwhelming. For example, people are more connected than ever and have an increased opportunity to find a community to belong to, more people might have a voice and a way to make themselves heard, and there is a chance for collected knowledge to grow and spread.

Future Trends

Recent research suggests that an "attention economy" of sorts will naturally emerge from information overload. Matthew Crawford defines this as "Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it." [16].This impacts businesses in that both the products and consumers are looking for and how businesses communicate internally with a growing desire for instantaneous reach and information. Whether it is the management of internal emails or large amounts of data, this overwhelming feeling has become normalized in a corporate setting.

See Also


  1. Blair, Ann "Information Overload’s 2,300-Year-Old History" 'HBR, (Retrieved 26 February 2017.)
  2. "Information Explosion". Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  3. Sweeney, Latanya (2003). "Explosion in Data Collection and Data Sharing". Data Privacy Lab. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  4. Gifographics. "Addiction to Smartphones: Facts and Statistics". Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  5. Rouse, Margaret. "What is Cloud Storage?". TechTarget. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  6. Byford, Sam. "1TB microSD cards are now a thing". The Verge. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  7. “The Inhuman Cost of Endless Connectivity”. InDaily. 26 Jan. 2017. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  8. “Fake News Is Spreading Thanks to Information Overload”. PBS. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  9. 9.0 9.1 “Intelligence Source and Information Reliability”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 16 Aug. 2018. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  10. Schweller, Randall (June 16, 2014). "The Age of Entropy". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  11. Floridi, Luciano (March 2014). "Big Data, Small Patterns, and Huge Ethical Issues". Oxford Internet Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  12. Saslow, Eli (2018). "'Nothing on this page is real': How lies become truth in online America". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  13. McElhearn, Kirk (March 18, 2019). “Information Overload? How to Slim Down IOS, Android Notifications”. Lighter Capital. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  14. Pot, Justing "Eating Only Dessert: Why Your Information Diet Is Probably Terrible " 'MUO, (Retrieved 26 February 2017.)
  15. Weinberger, David (2011). "Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room". New York: Basic. Print.
  16. Crawford, Matthew "The Cost of Paying Attention" 'NY Times, (Retrieved 26 February 2017.)