Posted on april 4 2014, by Frank Lekanne Deprez

In 1997, I used to quote Richard Saul Wurman’s remark which exemplified the amount of (paper-based) information overload that hit the shores at that time:

A weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth century England"

(Wurman, 1989, p.32)

Furthermore, Wurman made its case by aggregating ‘startling facts’ such as:

  • “About 1.000 books are published internationally everyday” (Wurman, 1989, p.34)
  • “Approximately 9.600 different periodicals are published in the United States each year (Wurman, 1989, p.35)”.

But in 2010 the number of books published in USA alone counts for the amount of books published internationally according to the ‘1989 - Wurman’ statistics ((Piersanti, 2011, p.1). In 2011, Hal Varian (Chief Economist at Google) put the information overload issue in context by asserting: ”Between the dawn of civilization and 2003, we only created five exabytes*1 of information; now we’re creating that amount every two days.” Altogether, in 2013 we compose some 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media (Thompson, 2013) — the equivalent of 36 million books. Considering that the entire US Library of Congress, by comparison, holds around 23 million books.

Could our human brain absorb and understand such an data & information tsunami? Are we being overwhelmed in our – self produced – sea of data, information and knowledge? So what’s new? In his book Too Big To Know, David Weinberger (2011) shows that as humans we have been complaining about information overload for a very long period of time. In his book he presents examples from the Roman philosopher Seneca in 5 BCE and Denis Diderot (the creator of the first modern encyclopedia) in 1755 and many more.

With the introduction of the web and blogs, Americans consumed about 3.6 zettabytes*2 of information in 2008: “Zettabytes? This is a number so large that we have to do research to understand it (Weinberger, 2011, p.7).” By 2015, nearly 3 billion people will be online, pushing the data created and shared to nearly 8 zettabytes*2 (Kalakota, 2011). Sieverts (2013) has compared these data production numbers with the seminal research done by Lyman & Varian (2000) and concluded that nowadays the data production doubles every fourteen months (Sieverts, 2013, p.116).

Data is like food, says Varian. “We used to be calorie poor and now the problem is obesity. We used to be data poor, now the problem is data obesity.

(Finn, 2011).

As the amount of information has overloaded the overload, we have not proportionately suffered from information anxiety (Wurman, 1989), infobesitas (Rosa-Maria Koolhoven, 2010), infolution (i.e. pollution caused by the rapid proliferation of data; Evans & Hutley, 2010) or infobesity (Rogers, Puryear & Root, 2013). When we talk about information overload these days, we are usually not thinking of it as a psychological syndrome but as a cultural condition. Weinberger (2011) believes that the fear that keeps us awake at night is not that all this information will cause us to have a mental breakdown but that we are not getting enough of the information we need. We have tons of information coming at us from every possible direction. One solution is to fix our filters especially – what Shirky (2008) labels as - ‘social filters’ that rely upon the aggregated judgements of those in our social networks. Good filters are part of our ongoing adaptation to information overload. But do humans experience a filter failure or a filter success?

  • It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.”(Shirky, 2008) That was the main theme of a thoughtful and influential talk that Clay Shirky gave at a technology conference way back in 2008. Better filters will help reduce information overload, and better filters are things we can actually build.
  • It’s not information overload. It’s filter success.” (Carr, 2011) Better filters don’t mitigate information overload; they intensify it. It would be more accurate to say: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter success.”

Weinberger (2011) believes that the new filters of the online world remove clicks, not content: Filters no longer filter out. They filter forward, bringing results to the front. What doesn’t make it through a filter is still visible and available in the background. We need new filtering techniques that don’t rely on forcing the ocean of information through ‘one little kitchen strainer’ (e.g. a library). The most successful so far use some form of social filtering, relying on the explicit and implicit choices our social networks make as a guide to what will be most useful and interesting for us (e.g. Facebook’s ‘Like’ Button etc):

“But remember that no filter, no matter how social and newfangled, is going to reveal the complete set of knowledge that we need

(Weinberger, 2011, p.12).”

There’s just too much good stuff, but there’s also way too much bad stuff! To make things worse, every argument or idea is contradicted somewhere on the web (‘we are living in the age of perpetual disagreement’). The paradox is that filters – used by peers, friends and other people in your network - are becoming more and more crucial content*3! Do we ‘simply’ need to focus our attention (Lekanne Deprez & Tissen, 2011; Goleman, 2013) by developing an attention-based view on organizations (Ocasio, 2011) and its participants. Within this context, Davenport & Back’s (2001, p.11) statement “if attention goes one place, than it can’t go another” is still valid.

Know When To Share, and When Not To.

A solution to data & information overload is to have a healthy information diet (Clay Johnson, 2012) by being selective about one's information intake, and consciously consuming it. Or book yourself a permanent digital – detox ‘in residence package’, complete with a – paper based! - guidebook explaining how to survive without access to the Net: disconnect to reconnect. A mental coach and/or life coach will be available for face-to-face sessions to keep things on track.

Or get yourself out of the contagious email – overload loop by taking a deliberate E – tox (i.e. banishing email messages out of your life). Recently the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hit the news by becoming one of the few leaders in the world the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) didn’t spied on because: “"The prime minister doesn't use a mobile phone, and he doesn't have an email account," a spokesperson for Singh told Agence France-Presse. "His office uses email, but he has no personal email (, 2013).” But also this ‘personal strategy’ is vulnerable. Morozov – author of “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism” - was invited to speak in Amsterdam on December 5, 2013 at the Privacy & Identity LAB conference about privacy and he proclaimed that ““If you are not on Facebook and you don’t own a mobile device, you are likely to be on the NSA list, as you are probably hiding something (Science Guide, 2013).” So on this planet there is no place – or space - left to hide from the NSA.

Are we ever able to switch off from the Net without being disconnected from work and life itself? In our Age of Flux even after leaving the internet for 25 days (Thurston, 2013) - or even a year (van Montfoort, 2013) – could have a lasting impact (e.g. a restored appreciation for disengagement, silence and the Joy of Missing Out {JOMO]) when one returns to the ‘plugged – in life’. Turn it off; switch off and unplug yourself, slack off and become offline. How do we escape from the multi-screen reality experiencing constant connectivity and oversharing? Spivack (2011) believes that we are entering an new era of social network insanity: Sharepocalypse. Because the distinctions between each social network are not entirely clear we feel obligated to fanatically juggle different apps and social networks just to keep up and be heard everywhere creating a Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) – syndrome. Can we really escape from the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) principle that feeds our endless curiosity? Sometimes people worry so much about capturing a moment that one forgets to experience that moment itself. Do we become sharoholics within a ‘sharing economy’ compelled to maniacally checking out the massive presence of digital networks on which to overcollect, share and track data, information & knowledge? Recent research shows that people check their cell phones almost 110 times a day (Woollaston, 2013) for checking messaging, voicemail, Linked In, Facebook, Instagram etc. Or are we becoming lifeaholics who dare to be disconnected (Kisjes & Calis, 2013) from the activity streams of sharing (personal) data, information and knowledge and regain ‘order’ over our own (digital) lifestyle?

More Connections, Fewer Relationships?

Mintzberg & Todd (2012) warn that while ‘new’ technologies (mobile computing, smart phones, iPads, tablets, Phablets etc) support executives to perform successful, they can also have unintended negative and harassing effects; managers need to understand the dangers of an overreliance on electronic communication:

“Managing is not a science; it is a subtle and nuanced practice, learned mostly on the job, through paying close attention to gestures and tone of voice. This ‘soft information’ is an integral part of managing, and is gathered by talking and listening in meetings, during chance encounters, or on the phone. Using only words ― sending a text message or an e-mail ― takes away the nuance that comes from seeing and hearing people, from exchanging points of view and working toward agreements. Information technology can and should expand your range of communication, but cannot be a substitute for interactions that build trust, share vision, and enhance community.

Indeed, managers who are in touch only through their keyboard are out of touch with the vast world beyond it. They risk substituting breadth for depth. Recent research shows that we may have more connections today, but fewer relationships. Facebook and LinkedIn can complement but not replace the personal interactions at the heart of managing effectively. Managers who believe that they can learn about their department through e-mail — rarely walking down the hall, let alone getting on an airplane — may find themselves in trouble. They’ll gather the facts, but they may miss the meaning. And the increasing use of 140-character tweets to convey impressions of an organization or a person will likely result in an even greater loss of nuanc".

Mintzberg & Todd, 2012

Brain Solis (2012) considers access to information and people as ‘intoxicating’. Information overload is a symptom of our inability to focus on what’s truly important or relevant to who we are as individuals, professionals, and as human beings. Being not optimally equipped to share data, information, knowledge and feelings (e.g. the Like button) across multiple social and business networks, a new dawn arrives on the horizon: sharobesitas (Lekanne Deprez, 2011). How do we prevent ourselves from overeating at a contagious buffet of shared data, information, knowledge and feelings? How do we stimulate conscious consumption (Clay Johnson, 2012; )? Perhaps leading such a connected life, where all or personal and business digital applications work together seamlessly – creating a present shock’(Rushkoff, 2013) - forces us to ‘go back into the future’ and install a ‘new’ platform: Sharoholics Anonymous? Future members of this platform need to reconcile the dilemma to go transparent (“All that happens must be known”: Eggers, 2013, p.67) yet stay anonymous at the same time. What individual societal values and digital behaviours do we need to develop to reconcile (Trompenaars & Hampden – Turner, 2012) this dilemma?


*Data Growth Chart

  • 1 Bit = Binary Digit
  • 8 Bits = 1 Byte
  • 1000 Bytes = 1 Kilobyte
  • 1000 Kilobytes = 1 Megabyte
  • 1000 Megabytes = 1 Gigabyte
  • 1000 Gigabytes = 1 Terabyte
  • 1000 Terabytes = 1 Petabyte
  • 1000 Petabytes = 1 Exabyte
  • 1000 Exabytes = 1 Zettabyte
  • 1000 Zettabytes = 1 Yottabyte
  • 1000 Yottabytes = 1 Brontobyte
  • 1000 Brontobytes = 1 Geopbyte

To make it easier for our brains to absorb an abstract term as ‘zettabytes’, Weinberger takes us along a trip from the sun to Pluto (and backwards):

“The electronic version of [the book] War and Peace takes just over 2 megabytes of space on the Kindle. A zettabyte is therefore the equivalent of 5 x 1014 copies of War and Peace. Of course, now we have to figure out what 5 x 1014 copies of War and Peace look like. Assume each is six inches thick, and they’d stack up to over 47 billion miles. And to understand that number, we could point out that it would take light 2.9 days to travel from the front cover of the first volume to the back cover of the last – ignoring the relativistic effects the gravity of this new 250 billion – ton object would create (assuming each volume weighs a pound). Or, put differently, if we divided the novel into two equal parts, War would stretch the length of eight trips from the sun to Pluto and Peace would stretch eight trips back”.

Weinberger, 2011, p.7

Claro? Not really. Weinberger continues his journey into the overload problem:

“No matter how long the line of copies of War and Peace gets, or how good your intentions, you’re still probably not going through a single one of them this summer. It doesn’t really matter if that bookshelf continues to Pluto and then loops back another fifteen times. An overload of an overload is still just an overload. “Does it matter whether you drown in water that’s 10 feet deep or stretches for 1021 more feet (189 quadrillion miles)?”

Weinberger, 2011, p.9

are becoming more and more crucial content*3!
Apart from filtering stuff forward, do we need to practice a content curation strategy? That is the process of sifting through information on the web and organizing, filtering and making sense of it, and sharing the very best content with your network (Kanter, 2012):

“Content curation is a three-part process: Seek, Sense, and Share. Finding the information (or “seeking”) is only one third of the task. Making sense of the information is just as important. Sense-making can be as simple as how you annotate the links you share, the presentation, or what you’ve left out. Sense-making can be writing a blog post using the links or summarizing the key points in a presentation. Finally, the sharing: it’s about giving the best nuggets of content to your audience in a format that they can easily digest and apply”.

Kanter, 2012, p.10


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