Shooting at Information Overload: Right Target, Wrong Weapon

December 9, 2009 at 9:06 am | Posted in Attention Management, Information Work, interruption science | 2 Comments

Tom Davenport’s “The Attention Economy” is the best information overload/attention management book I’ve read so far (despite several flaws).  For that reason alone I avoided obvious, snarky rebuttal titles for this blog post such as “Why We Don’t Care What Davenport Thinks About Information Overload” or just “Why We Don’t Care About Tom Davenport”.

But I don’t agree with his posting yesterday about “Why We Don’t Care About Information Overload“.  Like a good writer, he summarizes his point best at the end:

the next time you hear someone talking or read someone writing about information overload, save your own attention and tune that person out. Nobody’s ever going to do anything about this so-called problem, so don’t overload your own brain by wrestling with the issue.

I’m guessing his goal was to agitate and get people thinking by presenting a stark point of view.  He succeeded.  His post brings up a number of issues

I too have written that there are often better things to focus on than information overload, such as attention management in general.  “How should I make the most of the ever-increasing amount of information at my fingertips?” is the correct, attention management question to ask.  Not “How do I reduce information overload?” or “How do I deal with the avalanche …”.

But I have also written in opposition to the nihilism that Mr. Davenport presents here and that is frequent in the hand-wringing treatises of the information overload crowd.  There are key people in any organization that can take real action that improves the information abilities of many information workers.

He also makes the point that people won’t take the time to tune their information channels:

We could if we wanted to. How many of us bother to tune our spam filters? How many of us turn off the little evanescent window in Outlook that tells us we have a new email? Who signs off of social media because there’s just too much junk? Who turns off their BlackBerry or iPhone in meetings to ensure no distractions? Nobody, that’s who — or very few souls anyway.

In the presentations I’ve given on this topic, I devote a slide to this question and make the point that people will act when the cost of action exceeds the price of inaction. That may take a while, but if people are indeed annoyed enough they’ll figure out how to do something.  And here’s my post on how to turn off the new email window in Outlook.

A final quibble: While attacking information overload, he adopts the same guru-tense “we” that his targets use.  I’m not sure why so many people on both sides of this issue feel the need to speak for all of society when they talk (as I mentioned here).  Do “we” care about information overload?  Speak for yourself or those you know, but it is inappropriate to imply “it’s all of us (we) against just you”.

There are some good comments to his posting.  One accuses him of misstating the audience member’s question so he could rant about information overload.  Funny, but, if true, all too common.  Once someone has a rant, it’s hard not to twist topics to hit it. 

Another commenter (Lonny Eachus) wrote “Information overload is not spam. Spam is spam. Information overload, as it has been defined for decades now, is simply the vast amount of information that you have to deal with, in order to be successful in today’s world. It has little or nothing to do with spam.”  I have studied this field for quite a while and haven’t actually heard that redefinition of information overload.  I can see a slippery slope with the redefinition in that the large proportion of that vast information that doesn’t lead to action or insight can be defined as a kind of spam, so it’s turtles all the way down.  Besides, I’ll let Basex and the Information Overload Research Group define information overload, which certainly does include interruptions, banal messages (if not spam), and other messages that get in the way of insight.



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  1. I to am critical of Davenport’s post (and note that he put his advice, to disregard posts about IO, at the end of his own post about IO rather than at the top 🙂 – check my comment on it.

    As to Spam, my observation is that at least in the hi-tech enterprise spam is a non-issue, thanks to the excellent spam filters these companies put at their gate (same goes for any Gmail account out there). The intense email overload their employees suffer is practically all internal, “work” email.

  2. […] Shooting at Information Overload: Right Target, Wrong Weapon … – Tom Davenport’s “The Attention Economy” is the best information overload/attention management book I’ve read so far (despite several flaws). For that reason alone I avoided obvious, snarky rebuttal titles for this blog post such as “Why … […]

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