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Monday, July 25, 2011

Feedback Overload

Since the invention of writing, the written word has literally piled up. Indeed, from very early on, mankind has been overloaded with information. However, the problem posed by of information overload is not in a metaphorical stack of stuff, but in our relative inability of finding the needle of information we need in the haystack of information we don’t. Things like the Dewey decimal system, book indexes, and a helpful librarian barely addressed the problem until the invention of the internet search engine allows us to find our need, or in this case, needles. As the pundit Nicolas Carr opined[i], the problem we confront today is not finding a needle in an infinite informational haystack, but finding an infinite stack of needles that all merit consideration. Nowadays, when we electronically search for any topic, we are provided with many similar bits of information that allow us to more precisely fine tune or correct the deficiencies of knowledge. This error correction or feedback function represents a progressive resolution of the discrepancies between what we do and don’t know. Feedback may represent unexpected changes in our progress to a goal and/or unexpected changes in our knowledge of the nature of a goal. Feedback of course is essential to learning, but consequential to that learning is the increased activity of midbrain dopamine neurons, and it is the neuro-modulator dopamine that enables the consolidation of memory as well as heightened alertness and attention on the task at hand. But dopamine also increases positive affect that adds momentary value or ‘incentive salience’ to behavior, but does not intrinsically predict the overall or long term goodness or utility of behavior. Put a bit differently by the neuro-psychologist Kent Berridge, “The brain results suggest that pure decision utility—and not predicted utility—is raised by activating mesolimbic dopamine systems[ii].”  What this means is that the importance of the decision in the moment, or its ‘decision utility’ does not influence its long term or ‘predicted utility’. The implications of this are profound, for as the marginal utility of examining each informative ‘needle’ declines, the successive needles of information remain novel, and we continue to dwell on nearly redundant links of information not because they are useful but because they are new. In other words, whereas in the past impoverished feedback environments caused us to waste much time looking for information, the rich feedback environments heralded by improvements in web search lead us to waste much time looking at information! This means that we will be affectively and not rationally inclined to overstay our welcome on sites that not only provide us what we want and need, but infinite variations of the same information that we ‘want’ but don’t need. The problem thus is not information overload, but ‘feedback overload’, as the ever increasing amount and granularity of information feedback provides greater and greater detail that can increase the short term or moment to moment value of behavior to the detriment of our long term interests.

Information Search, CA 1960

Information Search, CA 2011

This increase in the momentary incentive salience of behavior can be used to conform with (if not predict) practical ends, but its ultimate value depends upon whose practical ends.  For example, the ‘Khan Academy’ ( is an online math tutorial that uses rich feedback embodied in badges, scores, hints, etc. to increase the decision utility of performing math exercises in service of the predicted utility of long term mastery of say, the mathematical calculus. On the other hand, a Google search also provides rich feedback including social network feeds, instant messaging, videos, helpful links, and now badges in the service of the predicted utility of Google, namely advertising. 

Ultimately, the problem is not that we are lost in a haystack, but that we are proverbially resting on a bed of pins and needles with each pin needlessly diverting our attention. The notion of ‘feedback overload’ means we are neurologically inclined to overvalue the short term importance or salience of new information, and when new information scales in amount and availability, we begin to live for a moment that may not conform to our ultimate good. For the rich feedback mechanisms provided by the internet, whether it is social media of just plain search, the solution to this problem is not better filtering of information or better feedback (as this merely acerbates the problem), but less, and can only be accomplished by constraining what information you can see, or when you can see it. The simple solution is keeping your personal library and newspaper, and severely restricting your time with search tools (the internet) that work too well. As internet feedback trends to infinity in ever morphing detail and availability, this will be our only option to spare us a new dark age caused by being blinded by the light.

Berridge, K. and Aldridge, J. W. Decision utility, the brain, and the pursuit of hedonic Goals, Social Cognition, Vol. 26, No. 5, 2008, pp. 621–646

Nicolas Carr, Roughtype (blog)

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