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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Information Overload

“Why are you fearful of the whole ocean swallowing you, when in fact you can drown in a cup of water.” Epictetus, 110 A. D.

We often moan that there’s not enough time in the day because there’s too much to do, but now the common complaint is that it’s because you’re doing too much. Information overload is the bugbear here, but it has been the bugbear since our ancestors were bugged by bears. Humankind has always been faced with more information than it can handle, but we learned to handle it by filtering. Like a chess master pondering the numberless moves that can sequentially secure checkmate, humans parse between information that is necessary, optional, or redundant. But they are also sensitive to novel information as well, and this ingredient can change the behavioral calculus in ways that make it impossible for us to out good information from bad.

Consider if you would, your uncle Charlie. It’s 1965, and living as he is in a faraway town, he’s always available to you, and is merely a phone call away. Unfortunately, long distance phone calls back then set you back twenty five cents a minute, so when you were calling Uncle

Social Networking Device, circa 1965

Charlie, it was sure to be about something important. Although infinite information about Uncle Charlie was available, the transaction cost of obtaining that information insured that the information you got from you uncle had a high predicted value, usefulness, or utility.

Now it’s 2010, and Uncle Charley is still around, along with his infinite experiences that he was always willing to share. The pay phone is long gone now, and Uncle Charley is now plugged into the entire electro-magnetic spectrum. And you can access his every move and every thought through myriad devices and services that provide you Uncle Charley, all the time. So whether it is Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, instant message, email, or Skype accessed through your iphone, ipad, laptop, or even future permitting, cranial implant, Uncle Charley is no more than an eye blink away.

More important, Uncle Charley is now ‘free’, and you can access him with minimal cost or fuss. So even though the value of accessing Uncle Charley from moment to moment is near zero, we still end up accessing Uncle Charley, a lot. In fact, we are ‘overloaded’ with Uncle Charley as well as infinite minutiae of minimal utility but high urgency. In fact, as in Epictetus’ maxim, we find oceans of information in a few ounces of water but historically have not been drowned in information because access to information comes at a cost. Now as the cost approaches zero, attend we must, and end up drowning in cup.

When the cost of information trends to zero, so does its marginal or incremental utility. However, the affective value of novel information stays low but constant, and when the threshold is passed we end up valuing information not because it is valuable, but because it is new. Thus when information is dear, we value it because of its utility, but when it is cheap we value it because it is novel. But unlike rational goods, novel goods cannot be easily parsed or handled according to rules, hence we become ‘overloaded’ with them, and that is a problem even a computer can’t help us with.

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