I tend to think of information overload as a 21st century problem, but serious folks were talking about it almost 50 years ago. In an essay published in 1971, Herbert A, Simon (who would win the Nobel prize in economics in 1978) offered the insight that \”a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.\” Simon\’s 1971 essay on “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World” appears in a volume edited by Martin Greenberger called Computers, Communications, and the Public Interest Johns Hopkin Press, 1971, pp. 37-52). Here\’s the context for Simon\’s remark, and a few other thoughts from his essay and his comments in the panel conversation that followed that caught my eye:
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention
\”Last Easter, my neighbors bought their daughter a pair of rabbits. Whether by intent or accident, one was male, one female, and we now live in a rabbit-rich world. Person less fond than I am of rabbits might even describe it a rabbit-overpopulated world. Whether a world is rich or poor in rabbits is a relative matter. Since food is essential for biological populations, we might judge the world as rabbit-rich or rabbit-poor by relating the number of rabbits to the amount of lettuce and grass (and garden flowers) available for rabbits to eat. A rabbit-rich world is a lettuce-poor world, and vice versa. The obverse of a population problem is a scarcity problem, hence a resource-allocation problem. There is only so much lettuce to go around, and it will have to be allocated somehow among the rabbits. Similarly, in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information resources that might consume it.
\”In an information-rich world, most of the cost of information is the cost incurred by the recipient. It is not enough to know how much it costs to produce and transmit information: we much also know now much it costs, I terms of scarce attention, to receive it. I have tried bringing this argument home to my friends by suggesting that they calculate how much the New York Times (or the Washington Post) costs them, including the costs of reading it. Making the calculation usually causes them some alarm, but not enough for them to cancel their subscriptions. Perhaps the benefits still outweigh the costs.\”
\”An information-processing subsystem (a computer or a new organizational unit) will reduce the net demand on the rest of the organization’s attention only if it absorbs more information previously received by others than it produces—that is, if it listens and thinks more than it speaks. … The design principle that attention is scarce and must be preserved is very different from the principle of “the more information the better.” … The proper aim of a management information system is not to bring the manager all the information he needs, but to reorganize the manager’s environment of information so as to reduce the amount of time he must devote to receiving it.\”
\”Our attitudes toward information reflect the culture of poverty. We were brought up on Abe Lincoln walking miles to borrow (and return!) a book and reading it by firelight. Most of us are constitutionally unable to throw a bound volume into the wastebasket. We have trouble enough disposing of magazines and newspapers. Some of us are so obsessed with the need to know that we feel compelled to read everything that falls into our hands, although the burgeoning of the mails is helping to cure us of this obsession. If these attitudes were highly functional in the world of clay tablets, scribes, and human memory; if they were at least tolerable in the world of the printing press and the cable; they are completely maladapted to the world of broadcast systems and Xerox machines.\”
\”Even before television, we lived in an environment of information conveyed mostly by our neighbors, including some pretty tall tales. We acquired a variety of techniques for dealing with information overload. We know that there are people who can talk faster than we can and give us an argument on almost any topic. We listen patiently, because we cannot process information fast enough to refute them; that is, until the next day, when we find the hole in their argument. A relevant rule that my father taught me was, \”Never sign in the presence of a salesman.\” By adopting such rules and their extensions, we allow ourselves the extra processing time needed to deal with the information overload. … I think that all levels of intelligence, human beings have common sense protecting them from the worst features of their information environment. If information overload ever really gets the best of me, my last resort is to follow the advice of Gertrude Stein in the opening pages of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: `I like a view, but I like to sit with my back turned to it.\’\”