Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Oct. 30, 1996
9 min read
TECHNOLOGY | Dying for information

The key to human survival in the information age may be a capacity to filter out the overload which can shock us even to death. WILSON da SILVA reports.

CELLPHONES ringing in cafes. Faxes in the home. Floppy disks arriving in the mail. Catalogues, voicemail, e-mail, radios, answering machines, pagers, magazines, newspapers, memos, reports, executive overviews, briefings, strategic outlines, backgrounders, newsletters, precis, abstracts and excerpts.

Then there are cables burrowing into the home, bringing more and more television, the Internet, home shopping, virtual travel and video-on-demand. We are awash with information, surrounded, prodded, consumed and overwhelmed by it.

No wonder we feel inundated. A weekday edition of the New York Times now carries more information than the average person in the 17th century would digest in a lifetime. One thousand books are published every day. The total of printed knowledge doubles every five years. We are in the midst of an information explosion and the casualties are mounting. 

Psychologists are increasingly talking about a new ailment: Information Fatigue Syndrome. And yes - it can even kill you.

“Unless we can find ways of staying afloat amidst the surging torrents of information, we may end up drowning in them,” said psychologist Dr David Lewis, who last week issued results of a survey funded by Reuters news agency, of 1,300 managers in Britain, the US, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

It found that information anxiety is a part of most executives’ lives. Most suffer regularly from headaches and bad temper; many also report enormous frustration when they know the information they need is out there, but do not know how to access it or get it quickly enough. They report mental anguish, physical illness, a detrimental impact on personal relationships and less leisure time, or an inability to fully enjoy it.

“One in four people admit to suffering ill health as a result of the amount of information they now handle, despite agreeing that they need high levels of information to perform effectively, “ said Paul Waddington, one of the authors of the study.

Symptoms include paralysis of analytical ability, mounting anxiety and self-doubt, and an increasing tendency to blame others. More than a third of all reported stress-related illnesses are now thought to be caused by information overload.

And it has physiological effects too. Diana Harris, a London marketing analyst, is one victim. “I would get panic attacks, with palpitations and a knot in my stomach because of the deadlines,” she told Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “I had information all around me and I didn’t know what to do with it all.” She suffered depression, chronic exhaustion, an inability to sleep, and pains in her joints and muscles. Finally, under medical advice, she quit. “I look back on my job and I see myself drowning under the information. “

Thirty years ago, an average supermarket stocked 1,500 food items; it now carries some 15,000, with hundreds of brand names. Where once there were five television channels, now we are promised hundreds of them.

“What started out as a liberating stream (of information) has turned into a deluge of chaos,” says Neil Postman, author of the landmark study of the television era, Amusing Ourselves to Death. “It comes indiscriminately, directed at no-one in particular, disconnected from usefulness. We are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”

It would be naive to believe that computers have made our lives easier without extracting any costs. Information anxiety is one of them, says Postman. In an age when everything is possible, and nothing is certain, “we may be informing ourselves to death.”

Since the advent of personal computers in the 1970s, vast streams of data have been made manageable, and much more mobile, but the rate of productivity growth in the industrialised world - when compared with the period from 1950 - has been mysteriously plummeting. Yale University economist and Nobel laureate Robert Sallow has remarked: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

Steven Levy, New York editor of Macworld, recently made the same point on a more personal level. “Back in the old days, when I toiled on a typewriter, I never spent a whole morning installing a new ribbon. Nor did I subscribe to Remington World and IBM Selectric User. I did not attend the Smith-Corona Expo two times a year. I did not scan the stores for the proper cables to affix to my typewriter or purchase books that instructed me on how to get more use from my liquid white-out.”

A 1992 study estimated that, in the US alone, personal computer users waste five billion hours a year waiting for programs to run, calling technical support, checking computer reports for formatting, organising their disks or helping colleagues.

This is estimated to cost US industry $US100 million ($126 million) a year. A further 26 million employee hours a year are thought to be wasted playing computer games.

Leisure time for the average US citizen, however, has shrunk 37 per cent since 1973, while the average working week (including travel) has risen from 41 to 47 hours. “It is ironic,” writes social theorist Jeremy Rifkin in Time Wars, “that in a culture so committed to saving time, we feel increasingly deprived of the very thing we value.”

Professor Geert Hofstede believes we have already gone beyond the human capacity to process information. The founder and chairman of Netherlands’ Institute for Research and Intercultural Cooperation, and celebrated organisational behaviourist, says, coupled with technological, organisational and social change, human beings are in danger of killing themselves with information stress.

“The human brain can only absorb so much information,” he said. Comparatively few resources have been “put into educating people on how to cope with the mass of information they are confronted with”.

The “killer application” might be the Internet.

“We have created a complicated superhighway of information for very high-speed travel, without training drivers ... or training them how to use a roadmap,” said Hofstede.

“You can drive anybody crazy by giving them too much information. If you expose people to too many changes at the same time, they are likely to get seriously ill or, in fact, die.”

Dr Ray Cooksey, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of New England, agrees that the information explosion “is putting a great deal of stress on our cognitive capacity to deal with so much choice. ... The ultimate impact ... is that we make poorer choices because of time constraints.”

Not having enough information, or making the wrong choice based on the information you have, may mean “you buy a car that’s a lemon, you send the kids to the wrong school, you choose the wrong university, the wrong wife, or become involved in the wrong peer group”, he says. Which only helps to increase information anxiety.

We may, however, be able to learn from people who do cope: “usually those who know how to close themselves off, who are able to distinguish what is useful and what is not,” said Hofstede. “They have a kind of safety valve inside them - and we need to train people with that skill. People need to learn not just which buttons to push, but how to select and filter important information.”

Victims of information anxiety may also try to change their world - perhaps violently. Theodore Kaczynski, charged with being the Unabomber, may be the world’s first avowed anti-information warrior.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” said the Unabomber is his US manifesto. “They ... have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.”