Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Dec. 2, 1996
Published on: 21C Magazine
13 min read

Can too much information can kill you? Researchers are staring to believe that information anxiety may become the disease of the 1990s.

By Wilson da Silva

CELL PHONES ringing in cafes. Faxes whirring in the home. Catalogues cramming the letterbox. Voicemail beeping in the office. Parcels landing on the desk. E-mail pouring into PCs. Radios blaring in the background. Answering machines blinking for attention. Pagers chirping on the train. Floppy disks arriving in the mail. 

Magazines crowding the newsstands. Newspapers multiplying into sections. Cables burrowing into the home, bringing more and more television – along with the Internet, home shopping, virtual travel and video-on-demand. Then there’s memos, reports, executive overviews, briefings, press kits, strategic outlines, backgrounders, newsletters, precis, daily abstracts, fax digests, weekly summaries, excerpts, abstracts, analyses.

We are awash with information. We are surrounded, prodded, consumed and overwhelmed by it.

No wonder we feel inundated. Never before in human history have we had so much information to process. 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 all printed knowledge doubles every five years. More information has been generated in the last three decades than in all of the previous 5,000 put together. 

We are in the midst of an information explosion.

And, as is the nature with explosions, the casualties are mounting up. Psychologists are increasingly talking about a strange 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,” says British psychologist Dr David Lewis, who earlier this month released a large-scale study funded by the international news agency Reuters.

Based on a survey of 1,300 managers in Britain, the United States, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong, it found that information anxiety is now a part of most executives’ lives. Most suffer regularly from headaches as well as bad tempers; many also report enormous frustration when they know the information they need is out there, but do not know how to access it or cannot get their hands on it quickly enough. Sufferers report mental anguish, physical illness, a detrimental impact on personal relationships and a compression leisure time, or an inability to fully enjoy it.

CBC Newsroom in Vancouver (Joe A. Kunzler)

“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 Reuters 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.”

The information explosion reaches to every facet of society, every stratum of modern life. Thirty years ago, the average supermarket stocked 1,500 food items; it now carries some 15,000 food products, each emblazoned with hundreds of different brand names. Where once there were only two or three television channels to choose from, now we are being offered scores of them, and the promise of hundreds to come.

Not only is information multiplying at an exponential rate, but the vectors by which it reaches us are also proliferating. Connectivity is the buzzword. As a result, more and more information, re-packaged and re-constituted, now reaches us in a variety of ways. But instead of making life easier, it increases anxiety: the more informed you are, the more you realise what you don’t know.

The result is a crowding out of the electromagnetic spectrum with more and more media, and a growth in new information vectors – all screaming for our shrinking attention spans.

Already, there is not a place on Earth without a telephone. When war correspondents arrived at the ruins of Kuwait City only hours after Iraqi forces were driven out in 1991, they opened their laptops, unfurled antennas and fired up satellite phones to bounce their copy to editing desks on the other side of the planet.

Trading Floor of the New York Stock Exchange

“What started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos,” says Professor Neil Postman, author of the landmark study of the television era, Amusing Ourselves to Death. “We are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”

Postman argues that technological change is always a Faustian pact; history shows that a new technology can destroy as much as it creates. 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.”

COMPUTERS MADE the information explosion possible. They have made vast streams of data manageable, and much more mobile. But have they made us more efficient? Since the advent of personal computers, the rate of productivity growth in the industrialised world has been mysteriously plummeting.

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 or IBM Selectric User. I did not attend the Smith-Corona Expo two times a year. I did not buy books on how to get more use from my liquid white-out.”

A 1992 study estimated that, in the U.S. alone, personal computer users waste five billion hours a year waiting for programs to run, calling technical support, checking computer reports, organising their disks or helping colleagues use applications. This is estimated to cost industry US$100 million a year. Another 26 million employee hours a year are thought to be wasted playing computer games.

Never before have we had so little time. Leisure time for the average U.S. citizen 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.”

“Technology is increasing the heartbeat,” New York architect James Trunzo recently told Time magazine. “We are inundated with information. The mind can’t handle it all. I sometimes feel like a gunfighter dodging bullets.”

PROFESSOR GEERT Hofstede believes we have gone beyond the human capacity to process information. The founder and chairman of Netherlands’ Institute for Research and Intercultural Cooperation, and a recognised organisational behaviourist, says human beings are in danger of killing themselves with information stress.

“The human brain can absorb only so much information,” the visiting scholar told PC Review. While PCs have become faster and faster, programs more and more complex, “there have been comparatively few resources put into educating people how to cope with the mass of information they are confronted with.”

Human beings were not designed to handle huge volumes of data. Basically, humans are very smart chimpanzees – there’s only 1.6 per cent difference in our genes and those of our primate cousins – and the human brain has not changed at all for at least a million years. We program VCRs and fly space shuttles with the same brains our ancestors used to grunt signals or carve stone tools.

In an age of information overload now comes the “killer application” (in more ways than one): the Internet.

Not only has the stock of the world’s information grown exponentially, the Net makes much of it instantly accessible. “We have created a complicated superhighway of information for very high-speed travel, without training drivers ... or training them how to use a roadmap,” says Hofstede.

Learning to filter out information may well be essential to survival. An overload of constantly updated information, coupled with constant change in society and technology, could push people into shock.

“If you expose people to too many changes at the same time, they are likely to get seriously ill or, in fact, die,” he said.

It is not only the sheer volume of information to be processed, or the rate of change, that can cause stress. Content can exacerbate information anxiety too. The better informed you are, the more you know how the world is rapidly changing. The better informed you are, the more you are aware of things that you don’t know but that you might need to know.

“The explosion of information and technology is putting a great deal of stress on our cognitive capacity to deal with so much choice,” says Dr Ray Cooksey, senior lecturer in psychology at Australia’s University of New England.

“A high-technology, high-pressure society has made it very difficult for individuals to come to grips with all the choices that have to be made. 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 choose the wrong university, the wrong wife, or become involved in the wrong peer group,” he says. Which – you guessed it – only helps to increase information anxiety.”

Hofstede agrees, but says some people do learn how to cope. “The people who cope successfully are usually those who know how to close themselves off, who are able to distinguish what is useful and what is not,” he said. “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 also how to select and filter the important information.”

Victims of information anxiety may not just go into shock, they may actually try to change their world – perhaps violently. What may well be the world’s first avowed anti-information warrior is sitting in jail awaiting trial: Theodore Kaczynski, the man charged with being the Unabomber.

‘‘The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,’’ said the Unabomber in his manifesto. ‘‘They have ... increased the life-expectancy of those who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilised society ... 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.’’