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Information Overload: Challenge of the Future

What are the challenges of an information society? Technology companies say it's all about bandwidth, fast computers, and cheap Internet access. But the real problem is information overload.

“The world’s total yearly production of print, film, optical, and magnetic content would require roughly 1.5 billion gigabytes of storage. This is the equivalent of 250 megabytes per person for each man, woman, and child on earth.” (“How Much Information?” report, University of California, Berkeley)

That’s an awful lot of information.

The Berkeley report outlines key challenges that organizations and individuals face in an increasingly information-overloaded society. “The difficulty will be in managing this information effectively: making sure that your suppliers, your employees, and your customers not only have access to the data they need to make informed decisions, but also can locate, manipulate, and understand it,” the report stated.

The report authors, Professors Hal Varian and Peter Lyman, note that our ability to create information has far outpaced our ability to search, organize, and publish it. “Information management — at the individual, organizational, and even societal level — may turn out to be one of the key challenges we face,” the report stated. “It’s the next stage of literacy,” Lyman said.

Some interesting findings from the report:

  1. The web that most of us know (the Internet) currently consists of 2.5 billion documents (up from 800 million in 1999). It is growing at a rate of 7.3 million pages per day.
  2. If you take into account intranets and extranets, you’re talking about roughly 550 billion documents.
  3. A white-collar worker receives about 40 email messages every day. IDC recently reported that in 2000, 10 billion emails are sent every day and that this will rise to 35 billion by 2005.

Never before in history has the human being had such an ability to create information. Never before have we been faced with so much information.

I attended a presentation recently that addressed the challenges faced by an information society. The key themes were bandwidth, computers, and cheap Internet access. Nobody even mentioned information overload.

We are caught in a technology illusion. Technology companies have been excellent at selling us a dream of the future. “Technology solves all problems” is the mantra. There is a technology race to promote broadband, faster computers, and bigger hard drives.

It’s like the “finger in the dike” fable in reverse. Remember that story about the brave Dutch boy who noticed a leaky dike and put his finger in the hole to keep the sea water from flooding the town? He kept his finger in the hole until help came along.

Today, technology companies are delivering us bigger and badder shovels, diggers, and cranes so that we can smash that dike away. We will have these massive bandwidth pipes, these superfast computers, and gigantic hard drives. And we will watch helplessly as our lives are totally flooded with information overload.

It’s not more bandwidth we need. It’s not faster computers. It’s not more gigabytes. It’s information literacy we need.

We need to create less information of a higher quality. We need to be able to manage information much, much better, getting rid of the junk and out-of-date stuff. We need skills that help us search better, and to be able to judge better and faster the quality of the stuff we find.

There are 550 billion documents available on the entire Internet. I could safely say that 90 percent of these document are rubbish.

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