Information Overload: Why Would We Know Stuff We Don’t Even Want to Know

Information is everywhere.  Or rather, data is everywhere, from a pop-up advertisement on our computer screen to various street signs we encounter on our way to school/work.  We tend to receive data willingly and automatically changing it into information in our minds.  Our phones are on vibrate every day, so even when we are attending a class or working, we never miss a single message or phone call from anyone, because our settings on the phone will automatically notify us, with a message alert, a ringtone, or a vibration.

Here is a video clip about information overload which reveals some interesting and astonishing figures concerning the topic:

This video shows just how much information we receive every day, yet how little those information actually retains on our minds.  (If you have watched this video, think immediately how much you remember of the statistics and data given in it…)  The example in the video where students open way more entertaining or miscellaneous web pages on their computer than actual useful web pages is an accurate and vivid example to show just how much we suffer from information overload every day.

We tend to accept without question any data presented to us.  And, because there is too much data  available to us (messages, emails, TV advertisements), we cannot decide what is worth turning into information and what is not.  So what do we do?  We turn them all into information in case we might need it someday (though that rarely happens).

I think one reason of information overload has to do with tagging.  Tagging is putting different labels onto the items, so that we can search for them later by using one or more of the tags we tagged on it earlier.  An example would be people tagging their photos extensively without really thinking whether the tags are relevant to the photo itself; either they don’t want to think about specific tags, or they want to get a far wider exposure and audience for the photo.  I find it really frustrating when something irrelevant turns up on my Tumblr blog search tags.  I think Cory Doctorow (2001) has a point when he says that collective tagging does not necessarily result in better classification systems, because people either lie, or they are lazy, or just stupid.

Here is an example of an instagram user tagging his/her photo:

We can see that the photo is features a cute baby drinking something.  This Instagram user used a total of 30 tags to describe this photo, some relevant like #cute, #curls, #yummy, #food; some not so relevant to the content of the photo like #photooftheday, #dailyphoto, and #igaddict.

Another reason for us to suffer from information overload is the extensive exposure to hypertexts and links on different websites.  Theodor H. Nelson (1992) descirbes hypertext as “non-sequential writing-text that allows choices to the reader…a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.”  Almost every website we look at every day contains one or more hyperlinks to different websites.  One example would be the homepage of Wikipedia, where you have numerous hyperlinks that offers you a choice to learn more about the linked hypertext.

Here’s a screenshot of Wikipedia’s English homepage:

There are so many links on this page that our information-overload eyes hurt.  How does Wikipedia link internally?  The page uses a mix of hypertextual structure and hierarchical structure.

A hypertextual sturcture means parts of the doument are linked to other parts of the docement or other documents on the internet, as seen by those hyperlinks within a paragraph of texts.  In the above example there are a total of 81 hyperlinks represented and linked in a hypertextual structure.

A hierarchical structure means that hyperlinks are arranged like a menu or a tree-like outline, as represented by the table of contents on the left hand side of the homepage.  The table of contents itself is made up of 13 hyperlinks.  All the hyperlinks are presented to us through a one-click action, however not every piece of data are useful to us.  My personal experience with Wikipedia is that once I clicked on the page I intend to look at, I will be attracted to all the other links presented to me and will spend more time to look them over.  I seem to think that it will not do me any wrong to click on a few more links to learn a few more things, regardless of the information’s actual usefulness.

I always think that surfing the web is like me entering a forest and climbing on a tree (which means me finding an interesting topic), then I will jump from one branch to another (through hyperlinks I will find lots more related information, opening more new tabs as I go), then once I am no longer interested in the topic I can climb down rhe tree (close all the tabs).  Lastly I will climb another tree (starting all over in search of new information).

Despite many reasons contributing to our information overload phenomenon, I still think we human beings can overcome any potential problems caused by it.  Pinker (2010) states that the distractions to (people’s) information processing have always existed, and people have always developed strategies to deal with them.  I agree with his viewpoint because since evolution, humans have been doing nothing but constantly adapting to the environment, creating tools to help themselves survive.  I firmly believe that in the end, computers, the internet, and all the information it offers people will fail to control them, but rather enhance and strengthen their survival.

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One Response to Information Overload: Why Would We Know Stuff We Don’t Even Want to Know

  1. Pingback: Reflection | harriet2848th

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