Thoughts on the Pew Report on Information Overload

Posted on January 20, 2017 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

The news about a report from the Pew Research Center drew some media attention recently. Pew surveyed the American public and found that Information Overload is not a big deal!

Times Square

Specifically, they found that:

  • Some 20% of the surveyed adults in the U.S. say they feel overloaded by information, a decline from the 27% figure from a decade earlier.
  • 77% of them told Pew that they like having so much information at their fingertips. 67% say that having more information at their fingertips actually helps to simplify their lives!
  • 79% say that having a lot of information makes them feel they have more control over things in their life.
  • Lastly, those who are prone to suffer from information overload are from poorer, less well-educated population groups and are on average older, with less technology at their disposal.

As can be expected, these findings raised some eyebrows: they indicate another manifestation of the digital divide, where the technological have-nots suffer and the haves are happy with their lot.

Now, these findings are the exact opposite of what I’ve been telling you from my own experience and research: that information overload is a major issue, with horrific negative impacts on practically every knowledge worker in the world. So what is going on here? Who is right and who is wrong?

Perhaps both positions are right. What I see is a confusion in the definition of information overload. When you read the Pew report you find that it’s all about people who access information from the Internet that they need for running their day to day lives and interactions with various institutions. For example, the report says “These findings suggest that information overload may not be the right way to frame anxieties about the volume of information in people’s lives. Rather, information overload is more situational: Specific situations may arise, such as when institutions impose high information demands on people for transactions, which create a sense of information burden for some Americans”.

Meanwhile the IO I’ve been trying to help organizations and individuals eliminate is also situational – but it’s about the situation where people work in a job where they receive hundreds of emails, text messages, phone calls and social media alerts every single day (as do most knowledge workers today), and are required to handle them all. The Pew study surveyed how citizens manage information they need at home; that’s a completely different story. Their findings are useful – but instead of saying, effectively, “Information Overload is a minor and decreasing problem affecting primarily the uneducated poor”, they should have added “Information Overload related to work messaging is a huge and growing problem for educated knowledge workers; meanwhile uneducated people who are not knowledge workers are troubled about the need to access too much information outside of a work context”.

Just to set the record straight…

Image credit: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia Commons