Information Fatigue

The term “information fatigue” was first coined in the 1990s by British psychologist, David Lewis. But as history shows us, people have been complaining about information overload for thousands of years.

The topic is explored in Harvard historian, Ann Blair, in her latest book, “Too Much to Know.” Dr. Blair reveals through sources that humans have been feeling overwhelmed by the accumulation of knowledge in encoded form—as a scroll, as a handwritten codex, as a typeset book—basically since the moment these technologies created gluts of information. James Gleick traces the history of information technology and computer science in his book, “The Information,” about which he says in an interview on the Bat Segundo Show:

Gleick: …I’m hesitating to call it “problem” of information overload, of information glut — is not as new a thing as we like to think. Of course, the words are new. Information glut, information overload, information fatigue.
Correspondent: Information anxiety.
Gleick: Information anxiety. That’s right. These are all expressions of our time.

The question that really intrigues me is how to deal, as a modern human, with the double-edge sword of information ubiquity. On the one hand, this is what human beings have always craved, since the Stone Ages, when information was very hard to come by and major world-changing ideas came along only once every few thousand years. Nowadays, via the network effect, groundbreaking research is happening around the world, all the time. But on the other hand, though we live in a golden age of information availability, we don’t quite have the tools to deal with it, at least on an individual level. Personally, I think email is an example of a poorly designed and failed method of digital communications technology—simply the worst. We need information systems that truly work to enhance the individual and the society. 

The question becomes: how to have our cake and eat it too? (Or is the cake a lie?)