Saturday 1 October 2016

The danger of tmi as our brains struggle in an information-laden age

Eoin Whelan

Published 07/05/2015 | 02:30

Eoin Whelan
Eoin Whelan

It's February 2010 and the inhabitants of a small village in Afghanistan's central Uruzgan Province are going about their usual routine. Unbeknown to them, their world is going to be destroyed within minutes. US military helicopters are advancing menacingly towards the village. By the time the helicopters return to base, 23 Afghan civilians, including children, lose their lives to a brutal cocktail of missiles and bullets.

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With oceans of data flowing in from drones and surveillance technology, how could the most information- rich military of all time make such a horrendous mistake? Unfortunately for those innocent Afghans, too much information can be bad. The Air Force investigated and laid the blame on information overload. Struggling to absorb all the information from drone video feeds, instant messaging and radio exchanges, the drone operator orchestrating the attack from Nevada erroneously determined a friendly meeting of villagers to be an imminent threat.

The rest we know.

Like modern warfare, information overload is a considerable problem for the modern workplace. Think of the content in 175 newspapers - that's how much more information we are now exposed to when compared to 1986. Under the constant barrage of emails, tweets, text messages, RSS feeds, and Facebook updates, some people flourish, but most are overwhelmed. Studies have found that information overload leads to decreased productivity, increased stress, stagnant creativity, low morale, and poor decision-making. The upshot is clear. Our brains are failing to adapt to the demands of our digitally enhanced world.

While it may seem obvious that the cause of information overload is too much information, that's not the full picture. Researchers at the University of California recently conducted a very interesting study.

A number of people had their brain activity monitored by MRI while attempting to absorb a massive amount of information. The researchers found lower performers activate many cortical areas when exposed to excessive info loads. In contrast, high performers only call on a specific portion of their brain. In other words, some people have aptitudes enabling them to eschew information overload, while others do not.

As the digital cloud continues to saturate us in data, it's vital for organisational innovation and productivity, as well as worker well being, to identify the abilities enabling some people to maintain their sangfroid. To shed some light on this issue, I carried out a study with NUIG students on social media use and information overload. As expected, information overload is a significant problem with 78pc of students stating that they regularly feel overwhelmed with the amount of information they have to absorb every day. However, overload was only partially explained by the intensity with which a person used social media. Heavy users reported feeling besieged by information only slightly more than light users.

So if the sheer volume of information is not responsible for us feeling overloaded, what is? A number of other possible explanations - such as people's multitasking preferences and level of IT savvy - were explored. Only one trait explained why some suffer information overload more than others. And that is conscientiousness.

I'm sure you know conscientious people. They plan and prioritise, are ordered and organised, and demonstrate great self-control. If they have a task to do, they get it done rather than being distracted by the latest cat video on YouTube. If this describes you, then you are in luck. The conscientious trait has never been in greater demand. In our hyper-connected world where technology is purposefully designed to distract us from our tasks, the conscientious among us will wade in the digital ocean while others drown underneath.

But the good news is conscientiousness can be learned with a little effort. The self-help section of your local bookstore is stocked to the brim, dare I say overloaded, with a multitude of advice on achieving your desired goals. Indeed, simply writing down and prioritising tasks can go along way to disciplining a chaotic life. Maintaining your newfound conscientiousness however, might be more difficult.

Maybe this sounds familiar. You've powered up your laptop and are all set to start that important assignment when you get a Facebook notification of a friend's birthday. You feel obliged to post birthday wishes. You take the bait and before you know it, half an hour of mindless clicking go by before you remember the assignment you were supposed to be working on. Congratulations, you've just made Facebook a few cents more. The big boys of the web world, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, employ teams of psychologists and computer scientists to conjure up ingenious ways to pull us away from our priorities. The more we click from hyperlink to hyperlink, the more they learn of our interests, and the more marketers can be charged for that insight. It's a simple and highly effective business model.

Employers too are guilty of contributing to the information glut. In the misguided belief that more information equates to more productivity, droves of IT systems continue to be pushed upon the worker. So we are getting drenched in information from all angles, only a fraction of which we can take in. It's akin to trying to take a drink from an open fire hydrant.

Information overload will continue to be a particularly acute problem for Ireland. According to Eurostat, Ireland is the number one employer per capita of information-intensive workers. It is also a stated objective by the Government to become a global centre for big data. Such technological ambition is commendable, but the implications for those of us who continue to be submerged by the big data tsunami seem not to have been considered.

So what can we do to shield ourselves from the onslaught? My own study suggests conscientiousness is part of the solution. Unfortunately, the US military realised this all too late. An investigation into the Uruzgan Province tragedy concluded the incident could been prevented "if we had just slowed things down and thought deliberately". Out of such a horrendous event come some useful words of wisdom for surviving the battleground that is modern working life.

Eoin Whelan is a business IT lecturer at the School of Business & Economics in NUI Galway.

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