Saturday, May 10, 2008

Information Overload - Our Evolutionary Legacy

I helped a colleague with a minor programming issue this week. She wanted to zero-pad a list of hundreds of numbers, so I offered to do so with some Visual Basic for Applications code. During lunch break, I figured out a simple one-line VBA function that could be called in a range in Excel 2003 to do the dirty work that would have taken a long time to do manually. I was clearly pleased with the result.

She noticed the kick I got out of the task. As I thought later about the incident, it occurred to me that this was an example of a perennial motivation that led me to and keeps me in the IT field. Information technology is about dull or repetitive tasks that can be automated once one figures out the appropriate tool or procedures to solve the problem. True, defining the nature and scope of the problem is a critical first step, an exercise which can be incredibly frustrating. But once the problem definition is complete and brainstorming solutions begins, it is usually only a matter of time before one can look down in pride upon a newly minted tool or routine which successfully automates something which was either incredibly tedious or time-consuming before the exercise.

While not everyone gets enjoyment from information technology puzzles and solutions - that part may owe something to temperament and personal competencies - it appears that we are all wired in evolutionary biological terms to be curious, to seek out new information about our environment, and to get simple enjoyment out of solving a puzzle. Irving Biederman, a neuroscientist doing research at the University of Southern California in 2006, discovered that comprehension of a solution to a puzzle triggered a cascade of brain chemicals that have heroin-like properties, hence the "buzz" associated with "getting" it.

When we think about this in terms of evolutionary history, it becomes clear that the desire for a "fix" we get from the quest for information is only superceded by other, more elemental needs such as hunger, fear or sex. Writing this blog entry in the comfort and safety of my family room's recliner on my notebook computer after consuming a sandwich and munching on some cheese, pickles and crackers, while listening to the sounds of children playing in a neighbour's backyard and occasionally glimpsing the blossoms of fruit trees in my own backyard, it's fairly obvious that most of my more elemental needs have already been met. And while it is true that work can sometimes dredge up elemental needs like avoidance of discomfort, social status, and other stressors, most of the time, the knowledge worker like me gets his or her on-the-job enjoyment from successes in the quest for information.

So what's the problem?

There are really two problems which are so closely associated with one another as to be two sides of the same coin. One is the problem of information overload and the burnout accompanying continual exposure to overload. The other is the necessity of separating noise and meaning in the content we actually consume. But the stress of the latter occurs mainly because of overload. Both noise and overload are growing exponentially, especially for information technology professionals, so if we don't get a handle on the problem, burnout is not only likely, it's inevitable.

The evolutionary adaptations which have worked for us in the past no longer work. In the past, when information needs were less frequent and when the dangers of overload were minimal, being curious about the solution to a problem meant that we found an survival advantage, first over other species, then over other groups and individuals. In simpler times, the colloquial saying "knowledge is power" rang true. When confronted with an information problem, we sought further information to combat our knowledge deficit.

There was always the danger of misinformation or noise in the environment (especially if other people were involved and trying to mislead or misdirect us to their own advantage), but nothing nearly as frequent or voluminous as what we confront today with our notebook computers, the Internet, RSS feeds to our news readers, email, text messaging, cell phones, iPods, cable television and the constant bombardment of advertising in virtually all forms of media.

You see, in evolutionary terms, the inference engine which is the human brain, recognizes patterns and draws inferences quickly, very quickly. But when we are bombarded by too much "noise", when we actively seek out more information that just might be relevant to the problem at hand, and when we can no longer separate meaning from noise and multiple sources - well, it's like drowning. The stress becomes overwhelming.

What we need is a new evolutionary adaptation to deal with "noise", overload, and massive amounts of information. More won't work. Less information, saying "enough is enough", garnering time for reflection and developing patience may now be more important to our success than the techniques upon which we have relied in the past.

What this means in practical terms is learning to say "No". It's learning to relax, taking breaks, spending time on being quiet and alone, refusing to be seduced by each new and "potentially" useful source of information.

It will probably mean taking some risks with focus, developing criteria for separating distractions from useful and trusted information sources, spending more time on developing resources and then ignoring the rest, and relying more frequently on a few "gurus". Instead of opting for plugging in and turning on to email, text messaging, portable entertainment devices and even newspapers and news magazines, we may have to learn to turn them off, to find hobbies, to get appropriate rest, downtime, to eat good food and do our exercises without always watching TV or listening to podcasts.

These new strategies may seem old school to some, but the research is becoming fairly clear that our inbred desire for more information can become counter-productive. And despite what so many of the advertisers tell us these days, "less isn't more; more is more" is just plain wrong. It might have been true once, but it isn't true anymore.