Information Overload? Here Are 10 Ways You – And Your Students – Can Deal With It

April 8th, 2014 1 Comment Features


If you read the Internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it would take you 57,000 years to reach the end. You could bind the pages in a 10,000-foot-tall book weighing 1.2 billion pounds. Printing it would require half a million liters of ink, which is the volume of fuel it would take to power a 747 jet leaving New York and heading east to Tokyo. It would use enough paper to cover half of Long Island, or twice the number of trees in Central Park. If the Ancient Babylonians had started printing the Internet in 1800 BC, they’d be done right about now!

But that’s enough information for now.

The tools we use to manage the Internet’s vast repository of data range from RSS feeds to apps like Cue, which uses algorithms to track your behavior as you browse through various activity streams. Still, the sheer volume of information and the frequency with which it arises can be daunting.

Researchers tend to agree that it’s not the volume of information that is the problem; it’s our inability to organize and process it all without experiencing “information overload, or what neuroscientists like to call “cognitive overload. In recent years, technology strategists have even compared information overload to physical obesity, dubbing it “infobesity. Just as our eyes are sometimes larger than our stomachs, our interest can be significantly greater than our brain capacity.

My own primary concern, when I’m skimming the Web, is that I will miss out on some juicy tidbit of information that might enhance my work or personal life. Even in doing research for this article, I found so many useful and relevant resources that I had to cut myself off almost arbitrarily in order to begin writing.

What if I click on a link at the bottom of the next article and find a single line of insight that turns my entire argument upside down? I thought. Shouldn’t I continue on to page 649 of my Google search results just to be sure? How will I ever know whether I’ve missed something if I can’t read everything there is to read?

The majority of literature on the subject recommends filtering out much of this information by ignoring it: Don’t check your e-mail for an hour! Schedule time to be “unplugged! Weed through your RSS feeds! Take breaks! Don’t read what isn’t relevant to your goals for the day!

But no one is going to do this. First, because people like to be distracted. And second, because people should be distracted; it promotes creativity and relieves stress. Most importantly, though, this sort of advice only reinforces our feeling that we lack control.

I believe we can handle vast quantities of information if it’s organized efficiently. The Internet is not organized efficiently. It has no center, much like our ever-expanding universe. Therefore, in order to combat the effects of cognitive overload and organize the Web’s content into a digestible form, we must develop a new kind of digital literacy that will guide us through the maze.

Concerns for Students and Teachers

1. Distractedness. A recent PEW study found that a majority of teachers (87%) agree with the assertion that “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans. But the story’s no different on your end. You know the scenario. You have assignments to grade and instead you’re checking to see if anyone responded to your Tweet about the upcoming Science Fair. Where do we draw the line between harmless digression and limited productivity?

2. Indecisiveness. Overwhelmed by too many ideas for game-based learning activities, your brain mildly freezes, and instead of seizing an opportunity to be productive, vital facts get wedged between trivial ones, blurring the line between credible and non-credible sources, and you make a hasty decision or no decision at all (read: procrastinate).

3. Mobility madness. You now have as many devices as you do second cousins, and the deluge of information no longer stops at the classroom door; it follows you (and your students) everywhere you go, 24/7.

4. Subliminal processing. “You don’t have to pay attention to something to learn it,” says Takeo Watanabe, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston University. “In fact, you don’t even have to perceive it.” Is this like all those extra calories you didn’t know were in the salad dressing at McDonald’s?

5. Impaired research skills. 91% of teachers believe that judging the quality of information is “essential for students to be successful in life, but 71% of them rate their students as fair or poor in their ability to recognize bias in online content, and agree that today’s digital resources discourage students from using a wide range of sources when conducting research.

6. Heightened need for digital literacy. “Having information and being informed are not the same thing, says Denise Cheng of the M.I.T. Center of Civic Media. “If, in what we call €˜information overload,’ we have just enough time to catch an eye-full of headlines from our RSS readers, a cluster of 140-character tweets or pithy commentary on Facebook, then we have an ever-greater need for media literacy€”the ability to decode messages in the way news and information are presented.

7. Irrelevant information. Search engines are designed to filter out irrelevant information, but still there is an enormous amount of it that slips through the cracks and must be filtered “by hand, if you will. This is not only a waste of time and energy but also a waste of brain space.

8. Replication of relevant information. The opposite is equally deleterious. When we have too much relevant information, our brains become saturated with too much of the same thing.

9. Psychological stress. A 2011 report, commissioned by Hitachi Data Systems, found 40 per cent of companies in Australia and New Zealand were suffering from “information glut, up from 34 per cent in 2009. Dr. Ben Searle, senior lecturer of Psychology at Macquarie University, says information overload is now a major source of psychological illness in the workplace and is expected to become an increasing problem. Hitachi Data Systems general manager Neville Vincent said that while Australians worked incredibly hard, among the developed economies they were probably one of the least productive.

10. The stagnancy of e-mail. The unchanging format of e-mail has not helped ease the overload. While the rest of communication and social networking has surged light years ahead, e-mail has remained stagnant, arranged largely along a linear timeline, with little thought given to context and topic.

11. Poor advice. Cutting yourself off from the Web cold turkey, or depriving yourself for a few hours here and there, are not realistic strategies. Digression is natural and absolutely critical to the creative process; we just need a way to digest all that information more efficiently.

Management Techniques

A healthy understanding of the Internet requires recognizing the interconnectivity of everything, and leveraging that understanding to manage your place within the proverbial Web. Educating your students on how networking works will not only help them navigate the vast quantity of information on the Internet, but will also enable them to steer the ship.

“Ironically, it’s often technology that helps me feel in charge of information, instead of feeling pushed and pulled by it, writes Margarita Tartakovsky, Associate Editor of PsychCentral. “My go-to programs are Freedom, which blocks the Internet, and OmmWriter, which provides a distraction-free writing space. This helps me to focus on one task at a time.

Inspired by the pioneering work of Cheswick and Burch in the late 90s, technology entrepreneur Barrett Lyon created the Opte Project, one of the first full-scale attempts to map the architecture of the Internet using a single computer. While the images of Cheswick and Burch’s Internet Mapping Project took months to create, and were pretty to look at but not particularly useful, Lyon was able to map 1/5 of the Internet in 2 hours.

Although we often think of the Internet as being infinitely spacious, the current global Internet address space can hold only a limited number of unique host addresses, which have been allocated into large contiguous blocks. The smallest block is a class C network, so Lyon decided to use class C networks as his fundamental “unit. Some of these blocks are no longer used, reserved by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or route to the same place, so Lyon had to account for these in his calculations. Trimming these blocks out increased the speed of his scanning and image creation. Eventually, Lyon found that he was able to use a single computer and a single Internet connection to map the structure of the entire Internet in minutes.

But creating a high-resolution image, Lyon says, takes quite a bit more time, which is why he hasn’t yet finished the project. The last “opte image he released was several years ago. In April, he picked it back up. But Lyon’s goals have changed. Unlike Cheswick and Burch, he isn’t interested in using his technology to map corporate and government networks.

He’s interested in education.

“I’d like to connect with some educators about the image to see if it’s possible to create some teaching curriculum for children grades K to 12, he wrote on his blog in April.  “I think children are woefully uneducated on how networking works.  Our lives are dependent on the Internet and yet we don’t teach networking basics to children.  It’s very painful for me to watch this generation grow up on trust that devices will just work.  Launching the new image will give me and whoever is interested a nice launching pad for discussions around this topic.

In 2009, Wired magazine founder and chronic digital culture explorer Kevin Kelly embarked on a slightly more poetic Internet mapping journey in an effort to understand how people conceive of it. He called for submissions of user-created, hand-drawn maps of “the Internet, as you see it. Kelly accepted submissions from people of all ages, nationalities, and expertise levels, ranging from the concrete to the conceptual to the comic. The only information they were required to provide was their age, occupation, and average daily hours on the web.

Argentinean psychology professor Mara Vanina Oses then analyzed the submissions and created a taxonomy of the maps themselves. She found that people who spend the most time online have the most abstract of drawings” perhaps an indication that a truly rich understanding lives in the realm of the abstract and conceptual, not the concrete, providing a big-picture view not of what the Internet does or offers, but of what it is: an infinite loop of possibility. At the same time, those who spend the least amount of time tend to put themselves at the center of the Internet €” a sign of the “developmental psychology of the web, wherein “web toddlers, just like real 1-4-year-olds, adopt an egocentric worldview, while “web adults are better able to shift perspectives and see the collective context of it all.

With that, here are 10 management techniques you can share with your students to help prevent information overload and gain control over your relationship with technology:

  1. Help students understand the structure of the Web and the concept of networking. Share the facts from the beginning of this article with your students. Help them see that by understanding the scope of the Internet they will also understand the scope of impact they can have on the world.

  2. Hone your research skills, and help students hone theirs. We should all be able to practice efficient search skills, cite multiple sources from various platforms, recognize originality when we see it, and reject biased arguments in favor of balanced ones.

  3. Use Activity Streams. With activity streams, you subscribe only to content you deem important, so the chance of being overloaded by information is vastly reduced. Try using Twitter for news only, and make use of RSS feeds to develop your own personal Web hub. Encourage students to do this as well.

  4. Consumer or contributor? Don’t just ingest knowledge and then let it stagnate. Share it. Act on it. This will also help you reflect on it more deeply and cement it in your memory.

  5. 140 characters or less. “We can fix this problem, says Joshua Lyman, a graduate student at Bringham Young University, “we just need to take charge of it. He suggests keeping work e-mails brief, taking inspiration from Twitter’s 140-character limit, and finding better ways to collaborate so that organizing an outing or lunch doesn’t rely on 10 back-and-forth exchanges. “Etiquette and expectations need to be established, he says, “much as telephone etiquette evolved until there was common understanding about not calling too late at night or during dinner.

  6. Use Instant Messaging to communicate with your colleagues. If you are lucky, your institution uses Instant Messaging for staff-to-staff communications. More institutions need to use IM as a communication mechanismthis would cut down on e-mail considerably and speed up response times to urgent issues. While it switches one format of input to another, it redirects quick and urgent messages to a technology that allows us to deal with those types of messages appropriately.

  7. Use Wikipedia and help make it better. The reason Wikipedia is so popular is because it serves as a convenient central repository for, well, everything. It makes the Web a manageable organism, but still one that everyone can contribute to. If you come across a page you can edit or add to, take it upon yourself to do so. It will only help make the Web more manageable for us all. Train your students to do this as well.

  8. Try out predictive, algorithmic technology. Consider again the predictive tool Cue. If you access your Twitter, Facebook and RSS content through the app, it uses algorithms to learn about you from the way you behave as you go through your streams. It observes, for instance, which links you click, how long you look at something, and whether you share the content with others.

  9. Define your life purpose in a paragraph. The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, every wind is the right wind. Keeping this purpose statement in mind will help you sort out any knowledge filling your life that doesn’t fit or that is secondaryto why you are here. Getting your priorities in order is the first step to navigating well in the age of information.

  10. Have a little faith. Trust that you’re not missing out on that much. If a story is big enough, you will hear about it, one way or another. If you do miss out on something, remember that it’s the way life works, anyway. We miss out on meeting people and experiencing things every day because we’re not in the right place at the right time. The Internet is no different, and perhaps it’s all for the best, anyway.


Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA.

You can follow her on Google+ or @sagamilena

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