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information overload

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Information overload is a state of being overwhelmed by the amount of data presented for one’s attention or processing. The term is used to refer not only to situations involving too much data for a given decision but also the constant inundation of data from many sources that is characteristic of modern life.

Information overload reduces our capacity to function effectively, which can lead to poor decisions in both work and life as well as the inability to make decisions, which is sometimes referred to as analysis paralysis. When the situation persists, burnout is a common result.

Information overload is one of the major areas identified for reform by the humane tech movement, which seeks to realign technology with human needs rather than exploiting human vulnerabilities for profit, as has far too often been the case.

On the individual level and in the workplace, the main tool for preventing information overload is intentionally limiting our exposure by being selective about the amount of data demanding our attention. Attention management strategies such as shutting off notifications and simply limiting time at the computer can be very effective. Technological solutions include calm technology principles applied to software design and the offloading of information processing to increasingly capable AI systems.

The futurist Alvin Toffler wrote about the potential for information overload in 1970, and may have coined the term. Toffler foresaw the exponential growth of the information age and warned about the challenges it could pose for humans in Future Shock and other works.

See also: attention economy

This was last updated in June 2019

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