Information Overload by Jan Ole

We live in a society where information becomes more and more important to our lives and us. We spend much time in our life gathering information, e.g. by going to school, watching TV, reading books, meeting friends, and family. In this American society, we are often required to have certain knowledge, which is not necessarily based on education. In our everyday performance we are required about many different kinds of information. With advancing technology in the past three decades, our use of TV and Internet has increased in the households and belong to our everyday life. Indeed, there are many ways to become knowledgeable. It also has become difficult to differentiate between education and knowledge. Now, that we can receive almost every information: we experience information overload. Almost every American household contains at least two or three computers. We cannot picture a life without Internet and computers for us. Internet use is increasing drastically all over the world.

The Internet use has increased all over the world. And so have the abilities to learn other languages. "The New York Times" is one of the ten major newspapers read online in Germany. This does not only proof that Germans use the Internet: it proves that they know English well. English has become a global language. English is the most spoken language in the world. It is the international language. English is spoken in all continents. In Europe, English people speak English, in USA it is the Americans. Even India, which has about 40 different languages spoken in different regions use English as their second English language. When I went to India in December 1998, I noticed that almost everyone knows English: even the cab driver, who was illiterate, was able to speak English. It is important to know English and to be literate for the Internet world.

In February 2000, my parents went to Bangladesh. I wanted to stay in touch with them while I was here in New York, USA. From the USA, we think that it is easy to reach everyone in this world, only if we have Internet access. We regard the Internet as convenient, because it is fast and takes away the time shifts. Between Bangladesh and USA, the time difference is 12 hours. If I can send an e-mail at 10 at night before I go to bed, I can get the answer as soon as I get up in the morning, because Bangladesh is 12 hours ahead. The reality though, is different. When my parents were in Bangladesh, I could not reach them, because the village where they stayed had Internet access only once a week. It is obvious that information overload through Internet or too many web sites will not happen in this country. Thinking of globalization, I want to think of all countries with equal rights, but this seems to be impossible when already a discrepancy between the first world, the 2nd world and 3rd world is established.

There are hardly any web sites in Bengali language, one called Kamna-Webdunia, though provides people with e-mail access in Bengali. Still, it is necessary to know English to have access to this e-mailing possibility. The Bengali writing can be used with an English keyboard. While writing the words with English letters in the Bengali way, in which they are pronounced, the e-mail appears on the right side of the screen. The Bengali pronunciations are more exact than the American or the British phonetics. The Bengali alphabet consists usually of each two consonants, it has two T’s two D’s, two R’s and so on. What also matters in this language is, it leaves less room for ambiguity than English. In the English language is room for ambiguity, sometimes, same words have different meanings or sentences are structured in a simple way so that they could have a different meaning. This, of course, can cause confusion amongst people, whose native is not English, e.g. mine. Being a native speaker of two languages, Bengali and German, I must admit that I find the English language simple enough to think it is complex because of its ambiguity.

According to this, we do nit suffer of information overload in all languages. We suffer of information overload in the English language. Like I said earlier, there are hardly web sites in Bengali, which makes it difficult to be overwhelmed in this language. But within the English language, spoken in almost every continent as the main language, not only ambiguity within the language becomes a factor; also the different dialects from all the countries, e.g. British English vs. American English.

There are many ways to become information overloaded. David Shenk writes in 22 chapters about DATA SMOG in the same called book. He starts off with " The Laws of Data Smog" He says that information, once rare and cherished like caviar, is now plentiful and taken for granted like potatoes. What it means is that we now regard information as something so common that we cannot handle good information anymore. His biggest argument is a new fragmentation (p.111) which comes with a society which is becoming more and more virtual. We get spammed through the Internet, e.g. through newsgroups, etc. "In the Internet jargon, spamming is the wanton masstransmittal of unsolicited messages." (p. 24) He complains about information glut, newsgroups and also e-mail. He also says that he used to like e-mail especially in the beginning; then he changed his about e-mail because of the information overload and the negative aspect, the negative feeling of the possibility of missing something if e-mails are not checked. "Having rest days helps." (p.43)

Another fact, which makes information more and more unattractive to him, is that we don’t need anymore data. Too many statistics have led us into the wrong direction. Therefore, I find it interesting that he uses his own data of experiences to illustrate his experience with the Internet. He seems to have at least three different e-mail addresses. This might seem not unusual to us, because we have different e-mail accounts. He quotes many scientists from other fields, e.g. Neil Postman, whose opinion and research about the Internet is almost old-fashioned.

Postman said in a speech in Oct. 90 in Germany that we are "informing ourselves to death." He had written the book Amusing ourselves to death earlier, in which he criticized the American TV nation. In the speech, he says, that a new technology like the Internet sometimes, only sometimes creates more than it destroys. He criticizes that new technologies favor some group of people, or that TV overruns schoolteachers.

The " Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" show has a high rating on ABC. In fact it has the highest reach during the week, compared to other game shows on other channels. (The New York Times, Business Section) C, July 31, 2001. As contestants we need to have knowledge to win the one million-dollar. As viewers of the show we think we gain more information and think we are smart. We don’t worry about technological change or that the money comes from TV ratings or might come from a technological change, which must have been there to provide some of the contestants with the "lifelines". This means to call someone via phone, who can help the contestant, when he does not know the answer. The average viewer also is not aware of the advertising within the breaks to become a stronger economy through companies…

Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers. The first world will be the winners, while the third world will remain as losers.
When I checked Information overload as a keyword in the Google web search, 298,000 different web-pages came up. Of course, I did not check all the 298,000 web-sites, because I did not have the time and I later found out that many of the web-sites are repeated. This is definitely another form of information overload. I did loose the ability of organizing.

It is difficult to deal with all the information at one time. Therefore, now people have become aware of this problem and are trying to solve this problem of information overload. Patty Maes, a professor at MIT helps to develop"Agents that Reduce Work and Information Overload."These are prototype agents, which she has build in her lab using "Artificial Intelligence" technique.
It should help with

Meeting scheduling
Electronic Mail
Electronic News Filtering
Section of Entertainment
The agent, on the other hand, learns how to better assist the user in
Observing and imitating the user
Receiving positive and negative feedback from the user
Receiving explicit instructions from the user
Asking other users for advice
According to Pattie Maes, I have to admit that agents make sense. Still, I wonder how this will be used within the computer systems like C+++, which she mentions. I am also concerned about the dilemma about the discrepancies between all the countries, which will eventually become bigger than now.
Pattie Maes probably would not agree with Neil Postman. I tend to think that Neil Postman is old- fashioned, when he says we are informing ourselves to death. I do think there should be a better way in handling information manually than creating another technological creature like an agent to help us to deal with the information we create ourselves. I might as well just need more time with this advancing technology.


Maes, Pattie: July 11, 2001
Agents that reduce work and information overload

Postman, Neil. "Informing Ourselves to Death"
German Informatics Society
Speech:11 Oct. 90, Stuttgart, Germany (IBM-Germany)

Resnik, Mike:Business Journal In Depth:
Spamming the Globe Internet users battle information overload

January 15, 1999

Shenk, David, Source:
MIT's Technology Review Technology Review v. 100 (May/June '97)
p.18-26 v. 100 (May/June '97) p. 18-26

Shenk, David: Data Smog. Harpers Edge.
New York:.Edition 1997.