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The Bottom Line: Too Much Information

July 16, 2012
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Connections
E-mail About the Author

If one more pop-up appears on my computer screen, I’m likely to pop it one. Don’t get me wrong—I’m all about sharing information, and our ability to publish depends in large part on advertising. But it’s not just intelligence agencies or military commands that are reaching the limit on information overload. The general population—at least in many countries—has to have reached the point of saturation, too.

For example, I was surfing the Web searching for timely trends to write about in this column. The introduction of Google’s Nexus 7 tablet and rumors about a smaller iPad had bloggers all a-buzz. The stories warning about viruses floating in cyberspace made their usual appearance. But it wasn’t these timely topics that caught my attention. Instead, it was the ads only mildly disguised as news stories sprinkled throughout the Web pages; the problem was that they offered information as well, so they looked real enough.

The social media pop-ups were the worst distraction. Those little opportunities to share, email, comment, post, tweet or otherwise engage in conversation about a product truly kept me from the task at hand. I resisted the temptation to information overload any of my co-workers or friends with items they simply “must see.” It was tough.

And the Web isn’t the only medium taking advantage of viewers’ newly acquired talent of techno multitasking. Believing that people somehow have trained their brains to process at least four streams of information at once, TV networks—even cable stations—and movie producers are cluttering their entertainment with, you guessed it, more products. For example, producers must believe the human brain can listen to the reporter, watch the accompanying video, be enticed by the “Coming up next … ” and read two headline crawlers simultaneously. Like some websites, their theory appears to be that success is in the presenting not the parsing.

These grabs for our attention are nothing but annoyances compared to the influx of information and intelligence analysts and warfighters must handle on a minute-to-minute basis. How they do this—and so effectively—remains a mystery to me, and perhaps I don’t want to know. Best just to accept that many have—or have developed—a multitasking mentality I will never understand … or acquire.

The bottom line is that a lot of important information is out there, but it is being cluttered by unsolicited grabs for our attention. The most useful media are those that sift through it all and deliver actionable data. Hmmm … I believe that’s something the military and intelligence communities figured out a long time ago.