Data Overload: The Peril of Technology and the Information Age

Posted by Kim Stacey

Chances are good that you’re exactly like me. Every year my birthday rolls around, and every year I spend that first week of June thinking about the past. Not with melancholy, mind you; not often, anyway. But with a certain amusement about how “times have changed”.

How the technology of today was a mere dream in the mind of folks smarter than I was back then; and how archaic the tools I was forced to use during college and graduate school seem to be today. The IBM Selectric I used; not to mention the research tools available in the university library.

Remember the card catalog? The data base for all libraries I visited between kindergarten and graduation day in 1983 was small enough to be contained in elegant wooden cabinets replete with dozens of small drawers. Rather reminds me of the Middle Ages, especially when you can compare it to information archiving today!

How many little cards did I file through, in search of the perfect resource for a paper? Information was definitely harder to find in those days, wasn’t it?

Now, in all honesty, one of our biggest complaints is there’s just too much information at our fingertips. And, researchers say it’s hurting us — as individuals, and as a society.

The Staggering Numbers about “Information Overload”

“As access to the Internet has become ubiquitous and effortless,” wrote Frank Bures, in Inner Space: Clearing Some Room for Inspiration, “the amount of information out there has become nearly impossible to fathom.” He goes on to prove his point by telling readers of his 2012 Poets & Writers magazine article that back in 2008, scientists at UC San Diego calculated that “Americans consumed thirty-four gigabytes of information a day, the equivalent of one hundred thousand words — or 350% more than we consumed on any given day back in 1980” (about the time I was in graduate school). No wonder life seemed more managable then!

In sharing statistics on ‘information overload’ in a 2008 Xerox.com blog post, Mike Moeller candidly commented, “To be honest… I take comfort in these facts. They tell me I am not insane, not losing my mind, not alone.”

And in sharing his cited research studies done by Accenture and LexisNexis, Moeller calms my wearying mind, that’s for sure. I take comfort in knowing, for example, that almost half (42%)of the respondents to the Accenture survey declared they accidentally used the wrong information at least once a week.
And 62% said they spend a lot of time sifting through irrelevant information (this from the LexisNexis survey).

It’s only going to get worse. Back in 2008, the global market research company, International Data Corporation (IDC), published The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe, which said that 281 exabytes of information would be created in 2008 — five million times the information included in all the books ever written. They estimated that by 2011, the digital universe will be 10 times that size.

FYI: I had to look up the word exabyte, and fortunately I didn’t need a card catalog to do it! Here’s what I learned online about this h-u-g-e number:

An exabyte follows the same rule as a byte where it represents a word length. An exabyte is a quintillion–or 1 billion billion–bytes of information. When using exponents, an exabyte is 2 to the 60th power or 10 to the 18th power. When writing the approximate number of an exabyte as a whole number it would be the number 1 with 18 zeros, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. (Source)

I told you the numbers were big. And getting bigger every day.

The Consequences

Being bombarded by all this information means big trouble for most of us. One study suggests, writes Frank Bures in Inner Space, the article directed at writers, “our lack of downtime is lowering our ability to think critically and to analyze. Others claim distraction causes loss of IQ points, and that it can take up to twenty-five minutes to regain our focus after an email or a phone call.” Oh, my. That can’t be good. But what can we do to counteract the effects of information overload?

I realize you’re not a writer, as the readers of his article are; but you still need to be able to tap into your creative mind in the work you do on behalf of your families. To be relatively free of distractions in order to do your best thinking. And to do that, you’ve got to unplug, all in the pursuit of getting control of your attention.

A high level of control is “the single most important quality of a creative mind”, according to Mr. Bures. But, most of us, it seems, live in a constant state of “continuous partial attention” – a phrase coined by respected thinker, Linda Stone. It’s when we are never fully tuned in to anything, but always partially tuned in to everything. “It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network,” writes Ms. Stone. “Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.”

She describes it as “an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.” (Source) It’s time to break that habit, don’t you think?

Some Counter Measures

There are lots of ways to reduce your information overload and sense of continous partial attention: two things reducing your professional effectiveness, as well as your personal happiness. Here are the two I’ve found most valuable:

1. Take the first step in reducing the number of hours you spend “plugged in” by starting a media log for a full week. Not only will you see exactly where you’re wasting both time and energy, thanks to your access to technology.Thanks to this strategy, I’ve cut back my technology-based entertainment and communication activites (email, social media) considerably. No cable television,

2. Try sitting or lying in a comfortable place for thirty minutes doing absolutely nothing. Not once a week, but every single day. Turn off the television, radio and telephone. Don’t forget to close the door to the room you’re in. Turn off the noise in your mind, be silent and feel good about it, to let go of your worries and concerns and let in the open space for peaceful thoughts to flourish.Step out of what novelist Pico Iyer so elegantly described as “the cathedral of distraction” and into “that place of stillness that allows you to hear yourself think, to come to decisions you can trust and to cut through all the clutter and complications of the everday to see what matters and what will last.”

3. Take advantage of the techology tools out there designed to reduce our distractions. Anti-distraction programs (many free) like LeechBlock, Isolator, or the aptly-named SelfControl, for MAC users. For more information, just enter “antidistraction software” into your browser search box. Then install the software of your choice, and tap into the mind-expanding power of silence.

Fight the Good Fight…For Your Families

Don’t let the cacaphony of noise — from the Internet, cell phones — and the tendency we’ve all developed to “mainline trivia” (as Frank Bures describes our habit of information consumption) keep you from doing your best work…today, and every day, on behalf of your families. Take steps today to “reduce the volume” of data streaming into your mind, tap into your natural brilliance as human being, and an exemplary funeral service professional.

Now, Talk to Me…

Do you have anti-distraction software installed on your desktop, laptop, or tablet? Have you found a unique way to “reduce the noise and mental clutter”? Simply want to share an opinion? Bring it on! I’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments below. You can bet I’ll respond!

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About Kim Stacey

Kim Stacey is an anthropologist, licensed funeral director, and certified grief counselor. She has been writing trade journal articles, as well as generic and custom website content, for funeral service professionals since 2005. Not only does Kim enjoy her work, she is deeply appreciative of the intellectual challenges each day brings.

One thought on “Data Overload: The Peril of Technology and the Information Age

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