A Personal Experience With Information Anxiety/Overload

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Posted in: Other Commentary

For virtually my entire adult life I have been what my friends call an “information junkie”—meaning someone who spreads or who consumes information. I am big on the consumption side, although I do a little info pushing with my books and columns. But I have always been addicted to information. In college and law school, and until the arrival of the digital era, my idea of a great break was to go to the newsstand to purchase a dozen or more of the latest journals and magazines and do nothing but read them, particularly when I knew I should be doing homework. Today, my digital consumption is far greater, and I can lose entire days—even an occasional week—when I go on a bender for now we can multitask and listen in the gym, or when working around the house, or driving the car. It is marvelous.

Before the Internet, I subscribed to no fewer than two weekly news magazines (Time and Newsweek), several monthly magazines (Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker), and three newspapers (The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times). I have always had a heavy book habit, and can still recall the pleasure of browsing in my favorite independent bookstore, which was put out of business by B. Dalton, which was put out of business by Borders, which was put out of business by Barnes & Noble, which is struggling to find hardcopy book readers and compete with the remarkable low pricing of Amazon.

Now, I am not about to take you on a trip down memory lane, for this information junkie embraced the Internet as a way to mainline information long before there were graphic interfaces rather only a black screen with a DOS prompt, then with Mosaic, to surf the World Wide Web. Until recently, I believed that I could get more information and faster, not to mention also more up to date, through digital sources.

As computers improved and greater bandwidth became available, as the legacy media has gone digital and blogs have become increasingly sophisticated, I have slowly but steadily dropped hardcopy subscriptions to magazines and newspapers. As an author now working on my thirteenth book, I am ashamed to say that about the only times I visit brick-and-mortar bookstores are when I am signing my own book, although my iPad, Surface Pro 3, and laptop, (as you might expect of an information junkie I typically carry all three) as well as my dual screen desktop computers, always prominently display the Kindle icon, since I am typically reading several books at any given time.

Recently, however, I have become concerned that by going all digital I am not consuming as much information as I did when I used hard copies. I have no signs whatsoever of dementia, rather when I stopped getting the hardcopy of the Wall Street Journal, and only the Sunday hardcopy of The New York Times, that I am not absorbing as much as I used to do. In short, I have been experiencing, for lack of a better term, information anxiety. Or is it information overload? Whatever it is, it the sort of thing that troubles an information junkie, so I set out to find the answer. And because I have found it, I will share it.

Information Anxiety/Overload

On my book shelf I have a book I picked up in 1989: Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman. The cover is a definition: “Information Anxiety is produced by the ever widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. It is the black hole between data and knowledge, and as it happens when information doesn’t tell us what we want or need to know.” Wurman’s work, as others have noted (pdf), falls into five subdivisions: “not understanding information; feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information to be understood; not knowing if certain information exists; not knowing where to find information; and knowing exactly where to find the information, but not having the key to access it.” But none of these problems relates to my angst.

As a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication, I have access to their databases. When exploring psychology literature relating to information anxiety, I also noticed studies addressing the related subject of “information overload.” This topic has been examined by both scholarly and general media and initially struck me as more on point with my concerns. Information overload is not new. Rather it has been studied since the invention of the printing press.

After reading several scholarly works, as well as several more concise works for general readers such as understanding information overload, retraining the brain to handle information overload, time-tested strategies for dealing with too much information, and the advice of management consultants McKinsey & Company on the subject, I understood that multi-tasking is not very effective for information consumption, but I still had not solved my problem. Then, on a trip to Georgia last week, and merely for the sake of variety, I loaded up on newspapers and magazines for the twelve plus hours of travel back and forth. Voilà. I found my answer.

It’s The Medium

By the time I receive my dead-tree edition of The New York Times on Sundays, I have typically read all the lead stories and others that I have found of interest via the digital edition. So I pull out the book review and magazine sections, and toss the newspaper, after glancing at how they have played stories on the front page. Thus, before my recent trip it had been a year or more since I had read any paper edition of any newspaper from cover to cover, not to mention several. The same with The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other magazines. Wow, it makes a difference.

Except when doing research for my books and articles, I seldom read newspapers and magazines on larger desktop screens, and I have never read more than a few pages of a book on a large screens, rather I consume information with my iPhone, iPad, Surface Pro 3 or my travel-friendly laptop. These machines are where I check my email and social media as well. But these machines were barely used during my three-day trip, other than to check my email, and for breaking news. Rather it was three days of old media, and I now understand that the media from which I get my information makes a significant difference. I felt satisfied I had not missed anything that was of interest to me.

Maybe it is because non-digital newspapers, magazines, and books are so familiar a form, which was the only form with which I was familiar for approximately 60 years, that I have only been fooling myself in going totally digital. Maybe it is not information anxiety or overload, rather dead-tree media withdrawal. All I know for sure is that a long weekend away from all digital all the time had an impact.

For example, I went through the newspapers faster because I could see more of the content when I opened them than can be seen on any of the machines on which I read digital newspapers. I did not have to scroll, or flip from page to page, to find the content. And related stories were conspicuously related by placement, not to mention placement gave me a better feel for what the editors thought important. I am an underline and marginalia maker and neither is done easily on ANY digital device. I also realized that notwithstanding the heat often generated by digital devices, hard copies of newspapers, magazines and books are in their own way warmer than digital material. There is no glare with these paper products.

Three days of information consumption in non-digital form, not to mention visiting the very traditional bookseller’s tents at the Savannah Book Festival, were a pure high for this information junkie. It was all so relaxing and angst free I must now reconsider unplugging from my digital information streams, maybe regularly. It is the best fix I have found for my mistaken thoughts about information anxiety and overload. The medium clearly makes a difference.

Posted in: Other Commentary

  • Robert Redis

    Well put That is when I analyze cases from Westlaw I have to print them out to fully understand them

  • John

    I’ve long preferred ink-on-paper media. I thought it was just because I’m older and used to it. But lately I’ve been asking my students — college undergraduates — what media they prefer to use, and the majority say if they really want to study something or want to read something simply for enjoyment, they prefer print.

  • wesleyfew

    We still use newspapers for starting charcoal.

  • Victor Grunden

    The big problem with digital medium is that now every search engine and digital news publication uses talking video ads making it very difficult to concentrate on an article. Digital subscriptions are cheap but if it’s just a string of video ads, why bother.

  • Extremely interesting column, and it touches on a lot of deep topics. However, I think the main focus here is actually a problem I think I share with Mr Dean, though I would interpret it differently. I think I was trained to intake information in a positional way that, over time, became linked to the print media. The electronic media are essentially transient and don’t support that kind of indexing. You can’t remember a browser window, or even be sure the same information will appear in the same place in an Internet article even if you go back to it, but the information in books is relatively fixed, and the anchor point helps me recall things… Yes, I do get lots of information from the Web, but I take the same information more seriously when I see it on paper. Quite probably that extra weight is just because I can remember it better.

    However, I think there are two related topics that are more serious. The simpler topic is a kind of channel overload and saturation that is leading to extremism and even the breakdown of democratic dialog… In short summary, whatever crazy thing you want to believe, with a bit of help from the google, you can saturate yourself with “evidence” of that crazy thing. Too much to read, too many videos to watch, and the limit of 24 hours/day is stuffed full of crazy noise. Some years ago I predicted this problem under the tag of “pandering to the users”, but now they call it customization that makes it ever easier to avoid disagreeable content, even when it’s the truth.

    The more complicated topic is actually economics, but economics considered in terms of time. Mr Dean hits that topic in a kind of backhanded way when he mentions all the dead tree media he stopped reading. However, I think the more interesting example might be commercial television, where the traditional “bargain” was 16 minutes of your time sacrificed to advertisers in exchange for 44 minutes of content. Much more complicated and interesting topic that deserves a few books of its own. Unfortunately, they probably wouldn’t get read much.

  • Victoria

    I agree-well stated. As an information addict with a 24/7 brain I confess to information withdrawal. I do not vacation well. I do believe, however, there is another component to our need for real paper and hardback covers. We older folks who were educated long before the pc became common and affordable, books were the only source of information. We were imprinted. Unfortunately, digital media has created a generational divide. As both a lawyer and a writer, I probably kill a tree a day simply because, like you Mr. Dean, I highlight and write in the margins. Remembering where I found “it” is a daunting task without a printer and a tree limb. The under 40 generation thinks somewhat differently because they are taught with different tools. Math students are allowed to use calculators when taking tests-what have they learned? Certainly not how to balance a checkbook without a calculator, but then many of the under 40 generation would argue “there’s an app for that”. But the bigger loss of all is that we are losing the ability to communicate. Book writers must know their audience; digital writers do not need to know their audience as there will always be readers in sufficient numbers. I would do the math on the economics, but my daughter must have my calculator….. :-)