10.21: Overload and Complexity

In Chapter 2, the current shift from an industrial society, based on energy, to a post-industrial society, based on information, was described. Whereas the industrial society experiences an energy crisis, the information society experiences an information crisis. The energy crisis is that there is too little information; the information crisis is that there is too much information. Information overload has been described as the problem of the 1980s.3

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.4 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. Sometimes we interrupt our education by going to school.

We turn this solution of a rich environment into a problem of information overload. A magnificent smorgesbord 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 smorgesbord of information in our modern environment. The inside-out teacher 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 was described above as the means of adding value to the raw material of the information society.

There are various responses to the challenge of complexity. The academic response has tended to be specialization. One sacrifices breadth for depth. Complexity can perhaps be contained within a narrow domain. A less academic response is fundamentalism. Complexity can be avoided by substituting some simple framework for understanding. Much of the popularity of Ronald Reagan may be due to the fact that he is, not so much the Great Communicator as the Great Simplifier.

Most people 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.Berelson and Steiner, in compiling an inventory of scientific findings about human behaviour concluded that the human being is a "creature who adapts reality to his own ends, who transforms reality into congenial form, who makes his own reality". 5

A more constructive response to the challenge is to develop skills for managing complexity. Those skills go beyond the traditional information-processing skills of speaking and listening, reading and writing. We can add to the explaining skills of speaking and writing the skills which I will call heuristics (the set of skills for organizing information at the source for effective transmission), and we can add to the traditional understanding skills of listening and reading the skills which I will call mnemonics (the set of skills for organizing information at the destination for effective reception).

We have already looked at a number of tools for the management of complexity. The Three Interfaces of Adam model presented in Section 3.21 helped organized vast amounts of information within an optimal seven categories. The siliclone described in Section 4.25 helped suggest how an appropriate division of labor between the person and the machine can help us move up the data-wisdom hierarchy by putting content into context. Idea processors, like Factfinder and Think Tank also described in Section 4.25, suggest how we can organize our ideas, inductively and/or deductively, within hierarchical structures. The leap-frog strategy, described in Section 5.3, suggests how informatics technology could be used by developing countries.

3   Stephen Strauss, Machines must be watched for Orwellian signs. The Globe and Mail, 23 December 1983, Page 3.

4   George A. Miller, The magical number seven, plus or minus two; Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 1956, 63, Pages 81-97.

5   Bernard Berelson & Gary A. Steiner, Human Behavior: An Inventory of Scientific Findings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.