What are some of the ways in which you experience “information overload” in school, at work, or just in everyday life?


We are confronted daily with enormous quantities of information.

The rhetorician Richard A. Lanham writes,

Everywhere we look, we find information overload. […] The designers of police cars complain that there is not enough room in a car for all the communications equipment that needs to fit into it. Ditto for airplane cockpits. The National Security Agency overhears far more information than it can make sense of, as the occupants of the World Trade Center found out. Race car engineers are overwhelmed by the amount of information relayed back to them from sensors on the cars. Oil wells are now so heavily instrumented that they produce geysers of data points that are harder to process than the oil. Data from across the spectrum, X-rays, gamma rays, and the like, shower down on the head of the astronomer. The poor foot soldier, formerly isolated in his foxhole by the fog of war, now has so much information pouring into him that a special project, Force XXI, has been developed to help cope with foxhole overload. […]

(From The Economics of Attention, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006: 6-7)

We could add any number of commonplace examples to Lanham’s list. For example:  Friends, family, and co-workers broadcast steady streams of information through an expanding number of social-media services. Advertising is pervasive and makes constant demands on our attention—often exploiting our biological reactions to movement, sound, and even odor (as in “smell-vertising”). 

The availability of so much information is at once exhilarating and agitating. Sometimes we feel ourselves to be living in a constant state of distraction, never able to experience a sense of deep focus and control.

Even the most diligent and hard-working among us struggle to keep up. Businesses and educational institutions (including this one) repeatedly affirm the importance of “lifelong learning,” and, indeed, the pursuit of new knowledge is one of life’s great motivating pleasures. But the phrase “lifelong learning” can also remind us of the anxiety-producing pace of change, invoking questions that are alternately bittersweet (Should I keep my old camera?) and panic-inducing (Will I spend my entire life scrambling to escape obsolescence?)


What are some of the ways in which you experience “information overload” in school, at work, or just in everyday life?

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