Friday, March 16, 2012

Infobesity: the next step in information overload

When I studied library and information science, I learned a lot of interesting new words. Serendipity was one of them, satisficing was another. And then there was the concept of information overload: the experience that you receive so much (or too much) information that it becomes difficult to e.g. assess the quality of the information, and make informed decisions. This word made a lot of sense to me, especially at the beginning of each semester :) 

The amount of information available to us is always rising. The numbers of information sources and information creators are also rising. Is it any wonder, then, that the new word being used to express this is infobesity?

I first read the term a couple of days ago, in an article on music played via paper posters (one idea about how to work around infobesity). Now, infobesity may be a new word to me but The Learning Circuits Blog wrote about it in 2006, as part of a spoof about which corporate pandemics to prepare for that year:
"Infobesity – the deleterious effect of excessive data consumption on the fitness and agility of individual and corporate minds. (...) Infobesity will become dramatically debilitating, though it will stimulate the growth of technology filtering tools. Those who master infofiltering will jog confidently through the fog, while those who don’t will keep staggering into lampposts."
This ties in nicely with Clay Shirky's statement which I have quoted before: that the problem isn't
“information overload. It's filter failure.”

Perhaps the most disheartening definition of infobesity comes from Umair Haque in 2010:
"Hence, infobesity: gorging on low-quality info, an information diet of junkfood. Result? Overfed--but malnourished."
In my opinion, this definition only covers one type of infobesity: infobesity caused by excessive amounts of low-quality information. The problem with this type is first of all the low quality, and second the amount of information. Another type is infobesity caused by excessive amounts of high-quality information. Here, the problem is primarily the overwhelming amount of information which means that even though the quality is high, the information isn't processed or internalised.

Which is worst? Could you argue that the first type is a blessing in disguise, since the overload of information means that low-quality information isn't processed? I'm not sure it's as simple as that - because in the same way that we mindlessly consume information, we also share almost anything on the web. So while the information may not stick in our minds, we send it on to our online connections regardless of the quality, and in effect contribute to their infobesity.

I wish I had a positive note to end this post on :) I'll update if I think of one. 

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