Human Data Overload Part I

by Jordan Spencer Cunningham on

The 21st-century world is perpetually flooded with more information and data than it can hold, and society is driven to consume as much of it as possible both in lieu of occupation and by choice. In the realm of technology, a computer can only process so much information at one time. Each device—from the simplest microwave to the most advanced supercomputer with dozens of nodes—has its limit of how much data can be pumped through its chips before it bottlenecks or even halts absolutely. So, too, the human psyche has its limits and will similarly degrade in productivity or even stall when confronted with too many stimuli and input. Its causes are various and widespread. It’s not just a personal problem; when an individual suffers, so does everything around him: his family, friends, work, social tendencies, and other devotions. With too many points of focus, no points will receive adequate attention.

There are two main spawning points, as it were, of the contemporary overload. The first source, which used to be more or less the only source even just twenty years ago, is the workplace. The second, which has now swept past the workplace into a league of its own, is social media. Both have their place, but both have vastly outgrown whatever small place was reserved for them, much like a deadly mold.

Since the dawn of the modern office, the workplace has often been one of the worst offenders to the frail human capacity for processing information. During the industrial revolution, devices that were designed to make work easier so that a person wouldn’t have to work so much actually paved the way for a worker to simply work more and more. From the typewriter to the modern office software suite, what was designed to reduce the workload ended up making expectations of output higher and faster, and the workload only increased. While some menial tasks were thankfully replaced by automated machines and software, many have only been made more efficient and have thus opened up more hours in the workday to process more information and do more tasks, not to mention the many new tasks that have been created due to newly accepted technologies.

In addition to the growth of technology and lack of human ability to keep up with said technology, the microcosm of the modern office has one very specific thing that has curiously changed in the past twenty years that contributes heavily to workplace information overload. Before modern computer technology took the workplace by storm, a person would be hard-pressed to find an average office without several secretaries helping to manage the workflow. Since the introduction of modern computer technology into the workplace, secretaries have become fewer and fewer in number despite the vast increase of information input, information output, information storage, and the great need for information management and control. Now even many CEOs and other executives go without secretaries; even though they appear to save an entire yearly salary for themselves, it often goes at the cost of their productivity due to their inevitable information overload.

The other main cause of modern human information overload is much less worthwhile and pathetic than that of the ever-churning business machine: social media has the same negative result (among others not mentioned in this piece) as the modern office, but, unlike the modern office, the only returns gained by the endless hours of social media browsing, reading, watching, commenting, and creating that so many millions of people in and out of the workforce do is mounds of useless information ranging from the next door neighbor’s cat’s sleeping habits to insights into some worthless celebrity’s romantic life.

From the internet’s boom of popularity in the late 90s to the early 2000s, the internet had its millions of useless websites and web pages, but none took such a viable chunk of the mass of users’ time, given so little in return, and then overloaded its users with too much information as social media has. The average internet-connected person, teenager or adult, working or non-working, will spend 15.5 hours a day consuming media, most of which is now social media. That is the majority of the average person’s waking hours devoted to social media—an unprecedented amount of information input, and most of it generally useless.

Most of this information isn’t even needed or even necessarily thought by the user that it is needed, but it’s accessed and processed anyway. When so much time is devoted to thoughtless stupor on YouTube or keeping up with the trends of the Joneses on Facebook, there is hardly any—if any—time for productive furthering of the good of the individual, of the family unit, of the community, and of the society at large; sometimes it even conflicts with paid working time. When the focus is on social media, the brain is too busy processing social media information, and real life—including social life—actually suffers. Productivity is lost. The human capacity is limited—clogged.

Mankind is overwhelmed with data that it cannot process. Faster and more efficient technology, instead of increasing productivity and decreasing the amount of work to do, has opened the door for us to simply throw more work on ourselves, and we have also gotten rid of the secretaries that used to help us manage these issues. In addition to the workplace, social media has infiltrated the lives and homes of millions of people, needlessly filling their minds with more useless information that they have to then try to process. All of this has caused an overload epidemic that was, until recently, unforeseen. In the poetic words of T.S. Eliot, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance; all our ignorance brings us nearer to death… Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”