texting in stereo
We are becoming increasingly comfortable with an overload of information, even when unable to process the information's value PHOTO: Per Gosche

A new Pew Internet study claims that the "more connected you are," the less likely you are to feel overloaded by information. 

Huh?

The study, entitled Information Overload was based on a survey of 1,520 Americans. It set out to assess the degree to which Americans feel overloaded by information, defined as the level at which a person "is uncomfortable with their abilities to cope with information flows in their day-to-day lives."

Before tackling the report’s "more tech/less overload" paradox, let’s look at some of its other key findings.

Relaxed at Home ...

The study concluded that the overall feeling of being overloaded by too much information has declined from a decade ago. Today 20 percent of Americans said they felt overloaded by information in personal context, versus 27 percent a decade ago. 

Not only do we feel less overloaded, a full 77 percent of respondents said they liked having a lot of information at their fingertips, and two thirds said information helped simplify, rather than complicate, their lives.

The study seems to imply that in our personal lives, we are adjusting to an always-connected reality.  

A case in point is the recent popularity of the virtual assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. And while this Google ad of a fully automated virtual assistant might seem a bit futuristic to most of us, the fact that it doesn’t shock us demonstrates that many people are now comfortable with ubiquitous (and intrusive) information seeking/sharing home technologies.

Overloaded at Work

In a business context, the report found that "nearly half (46 percent) of Americans say they find it can be burdensome to keep track of the volume of information needed when dealing with schools, banks or government agencies." Of those who felt overloaded by business information, 56 percent said they found it hard to keep track of information, while 47 percent said they had trouble finding information.

So while we are comfortable with an abundance of information at home, dealing with the quantity of information needed to get business done still causes anxiety.

The report sought to reconcile these inconsistent results by noting that "information overload is situational: Specific situations may arise, such as when institutions impose high information demands on people for transactions, which create a sense of information burden."

This conclusion conforms with conventional technology adoption patterns, through which users initially find new technology confusing and difficult to use. Over time, usage patterns and product features evolve until mainstream users eventually feel comfortable with the product (or the product fails and disappears).

I believe that this pattern explains the report’s findings. Most people first experienced the internet and smartphones as a consumer, through email, chat and social networks. Only later did people log on to the internet and use mobile apps to do business — through bank web sites, travel sites and government agency portals.

The bottom line is: we are already used to an abundance of information at home, but not yet so for business. Expect this to change in the next Pew survey as people have more experience with technology for business.

We Are Not Digital Equals

The report also noted that information overload is not evenly distributed among demographic groups. 

Specifically, those whose annual household incomes of $30,000 or less are somewhat more likely to say they feel overloaded by information, while those with incomes over $75,000 are least likely. 

Likewise, age and education play a role. The older you are and the less education you have, the more likely you are to feel overloaded by information.

Again, this can be explained by the level of exposure people have had with technology. The more affluent and more educated a person is, the longer they have been using the internet and smartphones, therefore, the farther along they are on the technology adoption curve.

Digital Haves vs. Have-Nots

That still leaves the finding that, "the more you use technology, the less likely you are to say you are overloaded by information."

The survey found that 70 percent of US adults have home broadband subscriptions, 72 percent have smartphones and 48 percent have tablet computers. Overall, 39 percent of adults have all three, 28 percent have two of the three, 17 percent have one of the three and 16 percent have none of them.  

The report concludes that, 

“contrary to conventional wisdom, it is those with more ways to access the internet that report being less overwhelmed by the amount of possible information in the modern technological world. Overall, 84 percent of those with all three access pathways say they like having so much information available, compared with 55 percent of those who have none of the three access pathways.”

Again, this does not seem contrary to conventional wisdom. 

Simply put, those with more devices are further along the technology adoption curve and therefore feel more comfortable with a deluge of continuous stream of information in the form of interruptions and distractions.  

This fact is borne out by the survey findings that “those with none of the three access pathways are significantly more likely than those with relative access abundance to feel information overload — by a 37 percent to 14 percent margin.” 

I think the simple conclusion is: those with less exposure to the information firehose are more intimidated by it. 

The Age of Post-Truth?

One wildly surprising report finding is that 81 percent of respondents claimed they were confident in their ability to determine when information is trustworthy. 

This troubling finding clearly defies reality. Findings from a recent Stanford study showed that only 20 percent of middle-school students could consistently tell the difference between real news and sponsored content. 

And it’s not just children — adults aren't any better.  

The recent presidential campaign demonstrated that even journalists find it hard to tell the difference between fake news and accurate reporting. Even Facebook has had to admit this is a problem, recently offering to take on "fake news and hoaxes."

The increasing quantity and pace of information is making it difficult for us to assess the truth and the significance of much our news. Even reputable news outlets are under pressure to keep the news firehose churning or risk losing viewers to faster-paced suppliers. There is simply less time and patience to check facts, which leaves us vulnerable to hucksters who are trying to drive traffic in order to increase ad clicks.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The report concluded that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with an overload of information from many sources, even when we are unable to process the value of the information.

We need to ask ourselves, “Is this a good thing?” 

Does being comfortable with a flood of information doom us to mobile phones at the dinner table instead of conversations, virtual meetings replacing face to face interactions, and a faster-paced, but less human existence?

It’s not too late to evaluate how we deal with all this information. 

The internet and smartphones are not unique when it comes to disruptive new technologies — think electricity, the telegraph, radio, TV, etc. When any new invention is introduced, it takes time for people to figure out how to use it in a socially-acceptable manner. 

Remember when cell phones used to ring in theaters? It still happens, but far less, because people realize that this is an unacceptable use of smart phone technology. 

I think we will apply similar logic to deal with the abundance of information. The media’s sudden awareness of the fake news problem may be a beacon of enlightenment.

On a grander scale, let the release of this report be a clarion call for the year ahead. Take heed from the report’s finding. Although you might be comfortable with all your information, from time to time remember to turn off your phones, shut off the computer and spend time with the people who mean the most to you.  

And while you are off the grid, ask yourself the difficult questions about whether all this information is enhancing your life or just making it more hectic.