Information overload floods students

This past week, the city of Atlanta probably got the most rain that it has in a long time. The monsoon-like conditions caused flooding, traffic, and general havoc all over the city.

The crazy torrential downpours were in stark contrast to the drought that characterized the weather of the city over much of the past year—apparently Sonny’s prayer for rain worked.

“When it rains, it pours” seems to apply well to the city’s weather situation. It also happens to apply well to the way I feel about information overload, a problem that seems to be particular to our generation.

The concept of “information overload” is not new; Alvin Toffler coined the term in the 1970s in his book Future Shock. Toffler defined information overload as being overwhelmed by copious amounts of information, to the point that people cannot differentiate between what is important and what is irrelevant. He describes a time when people become desensitized to information and cannot utilize it effectively.

Just as the rain has inundated the city and brought many of the city’s operations to a halt (except Tech, of course; we never close down the school or cancel classes), information overload has the potential to drown out the important information and make simple tasks incredibly difficult to complete.

It’s great that we live in a digital world and that everything is at our fingertips. Ideally, to find something, all we need to do is to hop on the “information superhighway” better known as the internet, pop a few words into a search box and voila: we find just the thing we are looking for. But anyone who has searched for something online knows that it’s not always that simple. Everything is on the web now—literally, everything. Sometimes that makes it extremely difficult to zero in on the information that we need.

Between the news sites, the blogs, the wikis, the tweets, the e-mails, the RSS feeds and countless other sources of information, sometimes the situation becomes more like looking for a needle in a digital haystack. Technologies that were created to make our lives easier and more connected are becoming sources of frustration.

Take the simple task of managing an e-mail inbox, for example. In this day and age, we receive so many e-mails in one day and have to sit down and manually sift through each message to extract the important ones from the inbox. That little number in parentheses that enumerates how many unread messages we have often multiplies in a matter of minutes. It becomes a chore and an extremely time-consuming daily task.

The reason why situations like these often arise is because of the age in which we live. We no longer have to go to a library, pore over a book nor talk to a live person in order to find the things that we need. Only a few decades ago information was largely a passive resource. Now, it’s an active resource that is being pushed onto us every second. Because of this very fact, we cannot afford to be passive about managing information anymore; we must actively manage the information that comes our way in order to maintain its usefulness or otherwise face a flood of superfluous information.

On a small scale, that means organizing our digital lives by using little things like folders, bookmarks and filters, to name a few small things. Taking a bit of time to sort things out will definitely make our digital existences a bit more productive.

However, thinking about things on a larger and broader scale, information overload is a problem that will continue to grow fast into the future unless we start thinking about how to control it now. While we will never be able to stifle the growth of information, we can come up with ways to more effectively utilize it.

This is our generation’s unique challenge: to maintain relevance in a world of e-junk. Our generation is still figuring out how to manage the incredible influx of information that has been made available in the past two or three decades. I’m pretty sure that information overload is just a type of growing pain that we have to deal with until some geniuses come up with a way to streamline and optimize the way we get our information.

Until then, we should actively be taking steps to deal with the issue, instead of letting our inboxes explode.