Tuesday, May 11

Can too much information be harmful for us?

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WE live in an age and a time when information is power – what you know, what you read, watch, listen to, and talk about, as well as write and text about – pulls you completely into a vicious cycle of a non-stop roller coaster of getting and giving data, knowledge, news, and gossip – whether you want to or not.

We all need to be informed – some may think they can lead hermit-like lives away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but they’re a very rare breed – in one way or another throughout the day, to help and assist us with our daily lives, the many mundane routines to go through, the schedules to meet, the forces that make us go on living. For all that, whatever information we have accumulated throughout our lives so far and whatever new data we can gather in the coming days, months, and years will be needed to help us carry on.

But how much information is too much? Can we get information overload? Information overload is the problematic process of trying to understand something and make the right decision when we have too much information about what we’re trying to decide about. The term actually comes from a book written in 1964 by social scientist Bertram Gross called ‘The Managing of Organisations’. It is caused by the existence of multiple sources of information, an over-abundance of information, and the difficulties we face with managing, deciding the relevance, and the scarcity of time to fully analyse and understand such information.

In today’s knowledge economy, information is our most valuable commodity.

Why do you think the world’s largest and richest corporations, from Facebook to Amazon, thrive on harvesting the personal details and information on all their clients, customers, and users? Why the recent hoo-ha over WhatsApp when it announced a plan to update its terms of service? Why is there a trade war between the USA and China over the way corporations like Huawei do business? It all boils down to who’s eventually going to control all the available information that’s out there.

Today, we are living in a world where there’s an overabundance of information of all kinds – it’s infinite, and with a few mouse clicks or taps on your smartphone keys, whatever information you seek is delivered instantly to your electronic device for you to read, use, and propagate should you wish to.

We are all swamped on a daily basis by what we receive on our smartphones or other devices. How many WhatsApp messages, forwards, video clips do you get every day? How much time do you spend on your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn? Traditional newspapers are now no longer the main source of your news, neither is television – as news portals online take over, and social media like Facebook and Twitter spew out news faster than anyone else can.

As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, we had to refer to books, encyclopaedias, and internet references for research material or recorded annals for historical records, past data and statistics, and other news and information that we need. Today, we can within seconds Google for it, ask Wikipedia about it, or do a deep search in one or another of the niche and specialised websites. In the past, we required days and weeks to gather background material for a research article, today it takes us just hours or at most a day or two. We will also find ourselves overwhelmed with the wealth of the material we seek – more often than not, a lot more. Our problem would be to sort out the grain from the chaff.

There’s also information fatigue. That’s when you get overloaded with too much unwanted stuff that comes along with what you’re actually looking for. This can be extremely hazardous to your health. Don’t believe me?

Statistics show that people working in offices took an average of 25 minutes to return to a work task after an email interruption. A worker averages 20 hours a week managing emails and typically turns to his email 50 to 100 times a day; although data shows that one in three emails were unnecessary to begin with.

Then there’s the stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives. Psychologists even have a term for it now – attention deficit trait, as well as another new disorder – continuous partial attention, which describes those with this mental state that basically shows an unconscious suspension of regular and steady breathing when they tackle their emails.

In our society today, what passes off for the old-fashioned gossiping in the coffee shops are today known as forwarding video clips sent to you by friends and relatives on WhatsApp or sharing on Facebook or Twitter some juicy titbit of an item of news or information.

In my own personal experience and having active accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, I have surmised the following after closely studying the habits of the inhabitants of these three platforms who are friends of mine, and they number quite a few so I can bravely say I do have a good cross-section of society at large.

Roughly more than half of my fellow members/followers/contacts would be what I’d term as level-headed, normal, and regular Joes who, like me, would post, comment, or forward standard, serious, and informative items of what we’d regard as useful, newsy, and (as far as we can tell) truthful articles, views, or video clips. As far as possible, most of these people would also prefer to steer clear of politics, religion, and, of course, sex.

About 20 per cent of them would be what I’d term as extremist – in their viewpoints, and would try and make their impact and influence felt on their political, religious, and other contrarian opinions. Sometimes this so-called information could be true or from a reliable source and sometimes not. But if you’re from the opposite side of his camp, you’d feel rather uncomfortable reading it, and you’d totally disagree too. But the thing is, he’s of course entitled to his belief, opinion, and stand.

Then there’s the balance of around 30 per cent, but this figure can fluctuate. This group I’d term as the gullible, the ones who’d listen to anything, watch any video clip sent to them, might suspend disbelief (but won’t mind having a second thought later), and also most likely to immediately forward some video clips sent to them on WhatsApp without even watching it first (or just the first few seconds) just to be the first to get it out to his/her other groups. They are the biggest proponents of fake news and why it is impossible to control their viral spread – by the fingers and thumbs of these snappy sharp button shooters.

At the end of the day, what we do with the information we get matters most of all. Do not get overwhelmed by the overload – do pick up the precious grains from the chaff, make information work for you, use it in a good way to benefit yourself and those around you. Make life easier, better, more comfortable, and lessen another person’s load or take away his worries, problems, stress, and uncertainties.

Information by itself is neither good nor bad, the person who makes use of it, you and I, we are responsible for making it relevant, important, useful, and a force to be reckoned with by putting it to work for us; for otherwise it’s simply just another word in the dictionary.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]