Information Overload in the Attention Economy


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Information has become ubiquitous because producing, manipulating, and disseminating it is now cheap and easy. But might perceptions of information overload have less to do with quantity than with the qualities by which knowledge is presented?

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Information Overload in the Attention Economy

  1. 1. The views expressed in this presentation are the views of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank, or its Board of Governors, or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this presentation and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. The countries listed in this presentation do not imply any view on ADB's part as to sovereignty or independent status or necessarily conform to ADB's terminology. Information Overload in the Attention Economy Olivier Serrat 2014
  2. 2. A Modern Encyclopédie In the 21st century, exploring the distinction between information and knowledge is the most important thing we should do. As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes. —Denis Diderot
  3. 3. The Great Information Glut Information is ubiquitous because producing, manipulating, and disseminating it is cheap and easy. The digital world provides a myriad means: distance no longer matters. We generate (create), collect (capture), store (record), process (manage), transmit (share), use (consume), recycle (discard), and plan (identify) information throughout the day. Electronic mail remains the communication channel of choice but instant messaging and social media posts are two technologies that increasingly challenge it. Data smog, infobesity, infoxication, and—more commonly— information glut are rich metaphors to describe the deluge of information that overloads our brains.
  4. 4. Is Information Necessarily Good? Is more information necessarily good? Although we may be becoming better at capturing and storing information, there are processing limitations. In reaction to the overabundance of interpretations, we may avoid making decisions, or even drawing conclusions. Without knowing the validity of content, we run the risk of misinformation. Are important discoveries, accomplishments, or initiatives being missed because vital information is buried under? With the increase in channels of information, people seem to have abandoned storytelling, the age-old technique that every society used to educate, entertain, preserve culture, and instill moral values.
  5. 5. The Information Economy … (I)n an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it … A relatively straightforward way of measuring how much scarce resource a message consumes is by noting how much time the recipient spends on it. —Herbert Simon
  6. 6. On Attention Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Where content has grown in abundance and availability, attention becomes the limiting factor in the consumption of information. Thomas Davenport and John Beck define attention as focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. They also define the attention economy as one where the scarcest resource is not ideas or even talent but human attention. In the attention economy, channels of information constantly compete to attract the largest share of that.
  7. 7. The Need To Know It is not enough to know how much it costs to produce and transmit information; we must also know how much it costs, in terms of scarce attention, to receive it … The design principle that attention is scarce and must be preserved is very different from a principle of "the more information the better." The change in information-processing technology demands a fundamental change in the meaning attached to the familiar verb "to know." —Herbert Simon
  8. 8. Per Aspera Ad Astra In a knowledge-rich world, progress does not lie in the direction of reading and writing information faster or storing more of it. Progress lies in the direction of extracting and exploiting the patterns of the world so that far less information needs to be read, written, or stored … The exploration of the moon is a great adventure. After the moon, there are objects still farther out in space. But man's inner space, his, mind, is less well known than the space of the planets … —Herbert Simon
  9. 9. Cutting Info-Pollution We can be smart agents: there are ways to manage our individual signal-to-noise ratios, for example, by not "carbon- copying" electronic mail to all. But, as primary sources of data smog, organizations should explore ways to contribute too. They might formulate strategies to eliminate duplication or exchange of unnecessary information. (Some argue that the issue is not information overload but filter failure; others see information overload as organization underload.) Technological solutions that organizations might introduce promise relief: for instance, software can automatically sort and prioritize incoming electronic mail to regulate or divert the deluge.
  10. 10. Communicating Knowledge Then again, given our propensity for attention economy, is it possible that perceptions of information overload have less to do with the quantity of information in production or circulation at any time than with the qualities by which knowledge is presented? Might the biggest drain on our time simply be ineffective communication? For sure, there will always be demand for good knowledge products. Yet, paradoxically, content providers often do not understand how to disseminate well. It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn. —Robert Southey
  11. 11. Showcasing Knowledge Dissemination of knowledge is just as important as its production. High-performance organizations (i) adopt a strategic approach to dissemination; (ii) know their target audiences; (iii) formulate generic, viable dissemination strategies that can be amended to suit different purposes; (iv) hit the target; and (v) monitor and evaluate their accomplishments. Good marketing is essential to this and information sheets are a key element of effective outreach. In a crowded marketplace, a concise well-written summary and its calibrated dissemination allow readers to easily gain information and understanding that is found more deeply in the document summarized. Knowledge that is available but not summarized might just as well be lost, even if it is in context.
  12. 12. Further Reading • ADB. 2010. Showcasing Knowledge. Manila. • ——. 2012. On Decision Making. Manila. • ——. 2012. Communications for Development Outcomes. Manila. • Herbert Simon. 1971. Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World. In Martin Greenberger (Ed.). Computers, Communications, and the Public Interest. The Johns Hopkins University Press. • Thomas Davenport and John Beck. 2001. The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. Harvard Business School Press.
  13. 13. Videos • ADB. 2012. Showcasing Knowledge. Manila.
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