Blog post

Information Overload is Not Just Filter Failure

By Craig Roth | July 11, 2012 | 3 Comments

Attention Management

A while ago Clay Shirkey asserted that there is no information overload, just filter failure.  That idea seems to be getting another jolt of buzz again, so it’s a good time to offer a modification that I think improves it and addresses a more critical issue: noticing important information that’s not vying for your attention rather than just filtering out the stuff flying at you.

I describe enterprise attention management as consisting of two mechanisms: pulling forward and pushing back.  Filters are half of that: the pushing back part.  Filters (or “attention shielding”) are useful when content is being fired at you and you want to block the useless stuff to avoid being rendered helpless by the deluge.

But I think a more serious problem is the information that’s just sitting out there, not calling for your attention, but that you should notice.  That means search (including more sophisticated forms like faceted search), alerting, notification, agents.

Consider walking in to a library trying to find the page where someone said “Folly is wont to have more followers and comrades than discretion.” (fine advice for social networkers!)  You could conceptualize the solution as dumping all the books of the library into a giant filter until only one page remained.  But that isn’t a useful solution.  Instead, you’d want a mechanism to point you to the right book and page.  The difference matters because different mechanisms are used to pull forward than to push back.  It gets even more difficult if you assume that information is sitting in a book and there’s someone who could really use it but doesn’t even know to look for it.  So setting up enough filters to find small bits of information is just tilting at windmills.

In my Symposium presentation last year I ended my talk on “The Joy of Information Abundance” by pointing out that in the ancient world, the truth in many subjects wasn’t a matter of knowing whose point of view was right.  No one knew the right answer on many important questions from medicine to astronomy.  Now we live in an age when much of the information exists somewhere if one knows which study is “right” or can connect two far-flung dots.  You just need a few pointers to the truth.  Or, for you X-Files fans …



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  • Chris says:

    Good points – so much information sitting out there waiting to be discovered … or the ‘right’ information waiting to be discovered.

  • Great points, Craig. I wonder if Clay would disagree in how you interpreted his use of filter–perhaps he was implying that combining filters with alerts and agents should be part of the solution…but there’s no question that we need bottom-up mechanisms like search rather than just filtering today’s most obvious inputs to find the things that should demand our attention.

  • Craig Roth says:

    Jared, I’m sure you’re right Clay would disagree. Rare is the pundit that will say “yeah, you’re right – I missed something” (myself included). I think the argument would be that content sitting quietly somewhere isn’t part of “overload”, hence not in his definition. I’m getting weary of the ratholes created by the word “overload”, which is why I try to focus attention management instead.