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The Psychology of Communication


13.2 From Overload To Complexity

The interactionist concept of the person and its corresponding transaction theory of communication is much better than the behavioristic concept of the person and its corresponding transportation theory of communication, as a model for teaching. However, it is still mechanistic. It considers the person, like the computer which inspired the model, as an information-processing system. In Chapters 5 (From Animal to Human) and Chapter 6 (From Child to Adult), the focus shifts from mechanism to organism, from physics to biology.

This is not rocket science. Rocket science is easy. It deals with the simple systems we have built ourselves during the last few years. Biology deals with the complex systems nature has evolved over millions of years. The complexity of biological systems is illustrated in Chapter 7 (From Behavior to Experience) and Chapter 8 (From Function to Malfunction). In the former, we learn that the nervous system is unique in being viewed from the inside (experience) as well as from the outside (behavior); in the latter, we learn that it is unique in having functional as well as structural disorders. Teachers must help students manage such complexity.

In any communication setting, the source may be one or many and the destination may be one or many. This yields the two-by-two matrix, depicted in Figure 13-1. Three of those communication settings - one-to-many (lecture), many-to-many (seminar), and one-to-one (tutorial) are emphasized in the university. However, the many-to-one setting is rarely considered. However, this is the setting which best describes the situation of the student. S/he is inundated by information (often contradictory) from various professors and media pundits, family members and friends.

This predicament is usually described as information overload, seen by some people as THE problem of our times. Whereas the industrial society, based on energy, experiences an energy crisis, the information society, based on information, experiences an information crisis. However, the energy crisis is that there is too little energy; whereas the information crisis is that there is too much information. As argued earlier, there is some evidence of a limitation in the rate of processing information. George Miller has compiled this evidence in his article The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information [MILLER]. However, there is no evidence that anyone has reached the limit to the memory capacity of the human brain. The argument that senility is nature's way of of saying "disk full " is vitiated by the fact that it is the creative people (whose brains are fuller) who are most resistant to senility.

It may well be that the problem of information overload is a pseudo-problem; yet another illustration of our human capacity to turn solutions into problems. One consistent finding in years of research on intelligence is that intelligence is a function of the richness of the environment of the organism. Smart people grow up in enriched environments and stupid people in impoverished environment. The traditional outside-in teaching was appropriate in impoverished environments, where the tell-'em-and-test-'em sessions with a teacher provided at least some enrichment. However, we now have incredibly rich environments which can help pull out the human potential.

We turn this solution of a rich environment into a problem of information overload. A magnificent smorgasbord of food is a problem only if you think you must eat it all. Perhaps, people raised within an outside-in educational system tend to think that they must assimilate everything in that rich smorgasbord of information in our modern environment. The inside-out teacher - whose concept of the person is of someone growing from the inside out rather than being conditioned from the outside in - welcomes the richness.

The information overload problem may perhaps best be rephrased as one of the management of complexity. Our information-rich modern environment permits us to build complex, subtle subjective maps of the objective world. The challenge is to organize the diverse information pouring in from the wide variety of sources into a coherent and comprehensive subjective map. It is not a quantitative matter of too much content but rather a qualitative matter of putting content into context. We must learn how to put data into context to yield information, information into context to yield knowledge, knowledge into context to yield understanding, and understanding into context to yield wisdom, as we move up that data-wisdom hierarchy, which is the means of adding value to the raw material of the information society.

For most people complexity is not a problem. They deal with it by simply refusing to assimilate any information which does not fit within whatever subjective map of the objective world they have settled for as satisfactory. The Jehovah Witness looks around nonplussed at all my books. He has one book which contains all the answers. The retiree (in body and in mind) has no need to learn anything more. He will devote his last few years to hitting a ball into a hole with a stick. The 'philosopher' in the local pub learns nothing because he already knows everything. His wife has returned the encyclopedia. The specialist in the university sacrifices breadth at the altar of depth. Complexity can perhaps be contained within a narrow domain. Much of the popularity of Ronald Reagan may be due to the fact that he was not so much the Great Communicator as the Great Simplifier.

In the 1980s, when information overload was considered as THE problem of the information society, Dr. Arthur Cordell of the Science Council of Canada asked me to think about it. How hard should I think? $5,000. How long should I think? Eighteen months - I have to incorporate it into a report due 2 years from now. I thought about it and, fifteen months later, realized that it was a pseudo-problem. That was obviously not worth $5,000. However, I wrote the report on the real problem of the management of complexity which underlies the pseudo-problem of information overload. Access to all this information enables us to make a subtle and sophisticated subjective map of the objective world. Much of the focus of my subsequent career was on the management of complexity. Thank you, Arthur!

For those of us who still regard it as a problem, one constructive response to the challenge is to develop skills for managing complexity. We have already looked at a number of tools for the management of complexity. The Triad Model in Figure 3-1 helped organize vast amounts of information within an optimal seven categories. The Four Generations of Media model in Figure 10-1 helps organize information within the technosphere, once again within an optimal seven categories, and serves as a structure for this book. The siliclone in Figure 10-4 is a device for removing the clutter of content, which is often mistaken for complexity. It shifts the emphasis from recall to recognition, which is much easier. Idea processors and authoring languages in Figure 10-2 help us organize information in two dimensions of hierarchical structures and three dimensions of networks of interlinked nodes.

Some of the many early books on this issue - e.g. Alvin Toffler's warning about Future Shock [TOFFLER] and David Shenk's warning about Data Smog [SHENK] - are phrased in terms of information overload. However, more recent books - e.g. Kevin Kelly's warning about being Out of Control [KELLY] and Thomas Homer-Dixon's warning about being being faced with The Ingenuity Gap [HOMER-DIXON] - are phrased in terms of the management of complexity. Read those books to get a grasp of the problem.

All I am adding here is the argument that complexity has always been a feature of the objective world - what is new is the recognition that it must therefore become a feature of our subjective maps. Complexity was here in the ecosphere before we arrived. We have added to that complexity in the sociosphere and the technosphere and the super-complexity of the interactions among those three great spheres, and we have been arrogantly assuming that we can manage this complexity by extrapolations from our various "toys" in the technosphere. What is new is the recent recognition that we must turn from the mechanism to the organism as our model, from physics to biology as our basic discipline, from simple to complex systems, from person-made mechanisms to nature-made organisms.