Information Overload is Not the Problem, It’s Filter Failure



“There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.” ? Ralph Waldo Emerson

My manager pointed out to me a while back that today’s problem isn’t information overload, it’s filter failure.

Here’s a quote by Clay Shirky, New York University new-media professor, writer, and consultant:

“What we’re dealing with now is not the problem of information overload, because we’re always dealing (and always have been dealing) with information overload…Thinking about information overload isn’t accurately describing the problem; thinking about filter failure is.”

What this tells me is that it’s increasingly important for us to create better filters and lenses.  Having access to information is great, but we need to filter and focus based on what we want to accomplish and what we need.

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  1. In fact, the brain has a fantastically effective filter which is trained when we grow up. Unfortunately for those of us looking for creative solutions, this standard filter is a lot like Douglas Adams’ “Somebody else’s problem field”: it will filter out the things that would require a lot of time to process, and leaves through all the stuff that is familiar to us. To see the filter in action, listen to questions children ask you, and ask yourself why you didn’t ask those questions yourself.

    What is important to realize when thinking about filters is that there are different kinds of “stuff” trying to impress on us. Processing “data” into “information” reduces the volume, and increases density of usability. Further processing “information” into “knowledge” reduces the volume even more.

    As a consequence, there is “data” and “data overload” for uninterpreted stuff. There is an order of magnitude less “information” and “information overload” for partially interpreted stuff. And there is yet another order of magnitude less “knowledge” for completely processed stuff. I have never heard anyone complain about knowledge overload….

    Where do we need our filter improvements?

  2. Hey Rob

    I like your example from the mouth of babes.

    Turning data into info and know-how definitely does compress (just like a shared vocabulary or patterns or pattern languages.)

    I’ve found the best filter improvements for me have been up-leveling what I’m looking for (framing and naming the space) and then *filtering* my sources to find better streams of insight.

  3. Hello J.D.

    I do agree with this. As when a project task is delegated so much information is provided. People get stuck with which is relevant and which is not. As a result there are delays in the completion of the tasks or tasks are done incorrectly.

    Bye for now,
    Cheryl Paris Blog

  4. It amazes me when people ask stop sending emails to distribution lists using excuses like “Stop sending spam, or, that it overloads their Inbox”. No, dude! You should develop a better filters. Could you imaging Google asking bloggers to publish less since it messes Google’s indexing engine? Can you imagine that?
    C’mon! Hit me with that email avalanches! 😉

    Good one, JD. good one!!

  5. @ Cheryl

    I’ve seen lots of tasks lost in the details to the point where they bury the goal.

    @ Lana

    Clarity is always the perfect complement to any endeavor 🙂

    @ Alik

    I think some people lack the ability to filter, scan, and drill and they get burried. I’m a fan of growing my skill and overload makes me stronger 🙂

  6. As the amount of information only increases, the need for better filters also increases.

    We can use both technology-filters (like spam-filters and automatic coloring in Outlook) and people-filters (that aggregate topics for us).

    Either way, we risk losing *some* control and potentially valuable information to be able to absorb the huge amounts of information that is out there. In many ways, Google is the main filter for most people today ?

    My 2 cents on information overload and filters:

  7. @ Atle

    I think tools that helps us filter by our focus and that help test for accuracy, relevancy, and timeliness will go a long way.

    Ultimately, I think figuring out our own tests for success for our information supply can help us set effective boundaries … even if that means adding seemingly arbitrary limits (such as The Rule of 3), and what I’m learning from a few books about *choice* seem to support that.

  8. Yes indeed and we can remove ourselves from every experience that does not serve us well. Why stop with information? How about applying filters to relationships too? What we ingest in all ways is indeed up to us. Good solid post. Thanks.

  9. Hi J.D. I think one of our filters is our practical belief system. If the data doesn’t fit, or if — as Rob says — it requires more mental processing than we have time for or are willing to invest, we pass it by. And take in only supporting data — which requires little processing.

    I agree with him (Rob again) in listening for the questions to ask. Seems as we develop that ability, the questions we seek answers for would create workable filters. (Focus toward something…)

    I love this topic — it makes me think. There IS more data available than I’m capable of reviewing — but is it necessary? I’ll give more thought to my own filters. Thanks.

  10. @ Tom

    I agree. As a rule of thumb, I try to spend more times with catalysts and less time with drains. I think this holds true for both people and tasks. I try to spend more time with the people and tasks that jazz me.

    @ Barb

    Well put and I’ve found questions to be my main escape from limiting filters. Questions seem to be the fastest way to switch focus or change perspective, especially when you know the right questions.

  11. Hi again, J.D.

    Yes! Knowing what questions to ask seems basic to me. What if we taught our children how to ask questions? And helped them to search for the answers instead of telling them. Would that make a great basis for our educational system? And them inspired them that this process is a life-process, not one ending at age 18 or 22.

    Why indeed learn anything if it is not somehow applicable to what I need and what I want to know and do?

    Your post above was short but loaded! Thanks again.

  12. @ Nathan — I like the fact you thought through the issue and have empathy for the problem.

    I could argue either side, and I think Clay was clever in that he focused on the response over the stimulus — it tees us up for taking meaningful action and owning the problem in an actionable and empowering way.

  13. No doubt Clay is a smart fellow, and his talk is thought provoking. Unfortunately the blogosphere chose to focus on the “It’s not information overload” part, which can be misleading. Hence my post.

    The need for filtering is certainly valid, although where email is concerned i prefer to put as much of it as possible at the sender end (thereby addressing the source rather than the symptoms).

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