“Information overload” is a statement about the amount of reading matter in cyberspace and an expression for a malady, frequently uttered in a tone of suffering. It caught the attention of cognitive ergonomists when it began to intrude on efficiency and productivity in the workplace.
Few workers pine for the time before the Internet – is there an easier way to buy file folders, book a flight or consult a bank account? Even fewer would deny that it has started to defeat its purpose.
Consider what confronts users up there: books, newspapers, magazines, directories, catalogs, maps. There are advice webs, classes, blogs, chat rooms, albums, yearbooks, movies, music and more. Google has taken on a project to scan and upload some 15 million books from five major academic libraries in the United States. The time may come when all the literary, academic, artistic and business output of Man through the millennia will be available on the Internet.
New technology accelerates all the processes for producing this material for the Web, contributing to the surfeit. Since we abandoned typewriters and correction fluid for word processors, there are few curbs on our prolixity. And multi-terabyte servers and broadband opened up the Internet for bigger files and faster downloads.
Now, words that spring to mind for finding information up there are “wading” and “ploughing.” A search for “information overload” on the popular search engine, Google, turns up 5.6 million results, mainly advice on overcoming it or diatribes. Even the search for “cognitive ergonomics” for background information on this report – not the best known of fields – yielded 202,000 results.
The demanding In-box
Asset or impediment, the information bank in cyberspace is passive: need or interest take us there. Internet messaging, on the other hand, invades our space. E-mailing and text-messaging function like aggressive ping-pong, zipping responses back and forth across cyberspace. Worse, they accumulate in In-boxes in numbers too great to handle. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is believed to receive up to 4 million e-mails a day, and has a dedicated department looking after them.
The stress caused by this surfeit of messaging is well documented, and two recent scientific studies described in The Scotsman newspaper add “infomania” and diminished brain power to the indictment.
Commissioned by technology firm Hewlett Packard, one study described “infomania” as a new ailment. It reported that 62 percent of workers of both sexes admitted they were addicted to checking their e-mail and text messages so much they looked at work-related ones even when at home. Half said they always responded to an e-mail “immediately” or as soon as possible, and one in five would interrupt a meeting to do so.
Even less obsessive use has consequences. In his study of 1,000 adults, Dr Glenn Wilson, a psychologist at the University of London, found that tapping away on a mobile phone or computer keypad, or checking messages on a handheld gadget, temporarily reduces the performance of the brain. He noted a reduction in mental capability equivalent to the loss of 10 IQ points, and described the activity as more impairing than smoking cannabis.
“It is obvious that full concentration is impossible when we have one eye on e-mails or text messages,” he noted. “Workers cannot think as well when they are worrying about e-mail or voicemails … The impairment only lasts for as long as the distraction. But you have to ask whether our current obsession with constant communication is causing long-term damage to concentration and mental ability.”
Dr. Alan Hedge believes workers can’t think well when they are worrying about anything. The professor of Ergonomics at Cornell University told The Ergonomics Report™ that it would be easy to misinterpret the conclusions of the London University study. Distraction, regardless of source, detrimentally effects performance, according to Dr. Hedge, and the nature and frequency of the distraction play a role. “The more you are distracted, the less easy it is to perform a mentally challenging task,” he explained, and described the impairment as a “temporary blip.”
He is unwilling to single out technology as the cause of the malady: “I’d like to bet if you were passing too many paper messages you could produce the same result.” He noted that the “blip” could result from the content of the message: that bad news, or even very good news, can dim the intellect for a while.
Dr. Hedge observed that the degree of impairment might differ with age. Young people who have grown up with 10-second sound bites, MTV and rapid-fire information from simultaneous sources may have developed the cognitive style to handle distractions with less impairment, he explained, and frequent short messaging and multitasking may suit the young.
Dr. Hedge also gives “information underload” a role in distraction. Even too little material in the In-box can cause stress that diminishes performance, he said, meaning that not receiving an expected e-mail or information might produce a “blip.”
As reported in The Scotsman newspaper in an article about the London University study, the millionaire telecoms mogul John Caudwell banned his staff from e-mailing. He dubbed the practice the “cancer of modern business.”
A 1997 study for Pitney Bowes Inc. called, “Managing Corporate Communications In The Information Age,” suggests the allusion to a dire illness may not be misplaced. It described office workers deluged by communications and technology. The study of Fortune 1000 workers found that “today’s corporate staffs are inundated with so many communications tools – fax, electronic mail, teleconferencing, postal mail, interoffice mail, voice mail – that sometime they don’t know where to turn for the simplest tasks.”
A 2002 white paper of Knowledge Ability Ltd. in Britain, “Information (and E-Mail) Overload,” found that the average manager was sending and receiving 178 documents a day through a variety of media. The author, Dr. John Gundry, describes a “message traffic jam” and “communications gridlock.” The report notes that “69 percent of Fortune 1000 companies do not have a communications policy to guide and support their employees ability to make decisions about communications tools.”
In 2000, according to the white paper, studies linked e-mails to workplace stress in general. The Institute of Management surveyed 800 members and drew up a report of factors causing stress in the workplace. “Keeping up with e-mails” was ranked No.10 in a list of 18 prime sources of pressure, and significantly contributed to the No.1 pressure, which was “constant interruptions.”
And that was 1997 and 2000. Consider the scale of electronic messaging in 2005. Organizations don’t know what to do about it.
We can thank Dr. Gundry for “TUNA,” his acronym for Totally Uninteresting News and Administration. In other words, it is internal junk e-mail. He defined TUNA as “those e-mails from Corporate about a new VP appointed in a long-forgotten subsidiary the other side of the world; the riveting stuff from Facilities about booking a meeting room; the new list of stress-handling courses from Training; and the possibly well-intentioned but irrelevant FYIs sent by fellow employees.” In surveys of international companies detailed in his report, an average 20-25 percent of the e-mail that people receive is internally-sent TUNA. Like external junk mail, he says, TUNA wastes our time, camouflages important e-mails that we need to read, and takes up system resources.
In an interview with The Ergonomics Report™, Dr. Gundry expressed dismay at the turn of events: “There used to be a system that prevented business people being overloaded by messages. Can anyone think what it was? Answer: a secretary. People of my father’s generation had a human system that shielded them from message overload. Today’s executives are dropped naked into a messaging vortex.”
Any remedies for the malady?
The most effective way to deal with the problem of stress is to switch these things off, according to Dr. Wilson, the London researcher. “We have to learn to control technology rather than letting it control us.”
Dr. Gundry’s advice was similar. “We have let the near-instantaneous speed of e-mail drive our own behavior,” he said. “We need to impose our own, human pace, so we feel more in control and therefore less stressed.” He asked, rhetorically, if we really need to check our e-mail 10 times a day, or respond like one of Pavlov’s dogs when the “new mail” indicator comes up on the screen.
Finally, he advised us to recognize the difference between pushing information at people though e-mail and letting them pull it when needed from databases and online conferences. “We experience more information overload when information is pushed at us, because we’re not in control,” he explained.
There’s a touch of irony in information overload, because it’s one result from the search for the Holy Grail of industry – productivity. Ergonomists were among the experts who helped the process along, working to improve all human-machine interfaces, including the cognitive aspects. The increasing interest in the malady in ergonomics circles holds the possibility that the Internet, bolting ahead like a runaway horse, can be reined in – or “fixed” – for our benefit.
Sources: The Scotsman, “Information (and E-Mail) Overload”. White Paper from Knowledge Ability Ltd, Malmesbury UK, Dr. Alan Hedge, Dr. John Gundry
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-04-27.