Tired vs. Wired

Illustration: John Hersey

The quantitative estimation of the information value of the messages transmitted in the various ­communications channels, and the identification of a human capacity for information handling by experimental techniques, suggest that the problems of widespread saturation in communications flow may arise within the next half century.--Richard Meier

Meier, an urban planner who died in April, wrote these words in Communications Theory of Urban Growth , published in 1962, in which he also put it much more succinctly by coining the phrase information overload . Now here we are, not quite a half century later, and his phrase has almost become a cliché. In fact, some say we have gone beyond mere overload to the point of wallowing in information pollution , the contamination of a culture or of a person’s life by excessive data. Some people respond with information environmentalism , a movement that seeks to reduce information pollution and its effects on people.

But not all of us even know how to begin becoming an information environmentalist . Instead, most people simply get tired of the onslaught. They suffer from information fatigue syndrome (IFS) , the weariness and stress that result from having to deal with excessive amounts of information. One writer described the symptoms as ”the paralysis of the analytical capacity, constant searches for more information, increased anxiety and sleeplessness, as well as increasing self-doubt in decision making.” Been there, done that, had a nap after.

IFS takes many different forms, the most common probably being e-mail fatigue , caused by receiving a large number of e-mail messages each day. (The analog equivalent is called junk mail fatigue , a term used by direct marketers to refer to one’s exasperation at receiving a steady flow of ad pieces day after day.) And who among us has not suffered at least a mild case of feature fatigue , the mental tiredness and stress caused by products that come with a large number of features? It is an inevitable consequence of creeping featurism , the tendency for complex systems to become even more complex over time thanks to the constant addition of new features.

One of the newest forms of IFS is password fatigue , the enervation and frustration caused by having to remember a large number of passwords. Whether it’s the LAN, online banking, or the untold numbers of accounts we have to juggle for Web destinations such as newspapers, blogs, and social networking sites, we log on to things constantly, and each of those log-ons requires a password. (A similar affliction is PIN-code overload , which refers to all those four- and five-number codes we have to remember for the home alarm, the automated banking machine, and on and on.) And speaking of social networking, IFS has hit here too, with the latest malady being social network fatigue , the burnout caused by creating and maintaining an excessive number of accounts on MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other such sites.

Fatigue is by no means a universal reaction to the current information invasion. Some of us positively crave data and turn into extreme informavores , people who try to take in as much information as they can. These are the infohoarders, the digital version of those people who suffer from syllogomania (from the Greek word sylloge , which means ”a collection”), the pathological hoarding of rubbish. Not that anyone into such hoarding would consider the data they collect to be rubbish--far from it. These are people whose iTunes libraries contain not thousands of songs but tens of thousands. These are people with hundreds of hours of recorded TV shows, uncountable numbers of digital photos, and more eâ''mail addresses and social networking accounts than they can keep track of. These are people who never delete anything, meaning that many probably have some form of disposophobia , the fear of throwing things out. These are, in short, the new digital pack rats. For completeness, I should also mention that infohoarding often goes hand-in-hand with completism, the obsessive gathering of the complete collection of a particular set of items, such as a musician’s recordings or the shows in a TV series.

Whether excessive information gets you down or perks you up, it’s clear that the future will bring more information, not less. We are seeing the cultural realization of Parkinson’s Law of Data, which tells us that data expands to fill the space available for storage. Unfortunately, with terabyte hard drives about to become commonplace, the culture will simply pick up the pace of data production in an effort to fill those drives. Syllogomaniacs will love it; the rest of us will get tired just thinking about it.

About the Author

PAUL MCFEDRIES is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases (http://www.wordspy.com).

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