Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS) : Drowning and Getting Entangled in the Net

"Tis true: there's magic in the web of it...."
so said William Shakespeare, in Othello Act 3, Scene 4.

Little did he realise what kind of magic the web was going to be !

My friend S., treats the Net, like a secret doctor, whose face she does not need to see. Faced with a weird leg pain one day, she searched and zeroed in , upon a term, called "claudication", and immediately got alarmed. Worried sick, she found out about blockages in the femoral artery that flows through the leg, and discovered, that a observant doctor can hear and differentiate between blood flowing sounds using the stethoscope, and tell whether there is a blockage, causing the aforementioned pain.

Her doctor, an amazingly wise and tolerant lady, and used to sudden scientific discoveries , as such by S., did the needful checking on artery sounds, and declared Sara's arteries just fine.

S. is in her thirties, but her apprehension, tension, loss of appetite and general state of anxiety affected her whole family till the puzzle was solved.

This is a minor example of what is happening all over the world today , like an uncontrolled explosion.

There is a huge tidal flow of information coming at us. Waves lapping at the feet are initially enjoyable, but the information wave is in danger of becoming a tsunami....

Think. (On the other hand, maybe you should not).

Every year, we publish a thousand books daily across the world. Every day, approximately 20 million words of technical information are recorded. A reader capable of reading 1000 words per minute would require 1.5 months, reading eight hours every day, to get through one day's output, and at the end of that period he would have fallen 5.5 years behind in his reading.....

America publishes nine thousand periodicals a year. Overall, more new information has been produced within the last 30 years than in the last 5000.

Electronic activities, like the telephone, email, fax, web cams, digital imaging, and , finally the World Wide Web, have been throwing up quantities of information so vast, that it is impossible to assimilate all of it, organise all of it, or understand this shortcoming.

Across the world whether its business, scientific studies, casual searches, advertising , or news propagation , people are finding it difficult to handle the flood of information directed at them. They are being faced with choices they never knew existed, and no one has time to look through all of them. In a classic mismatch between the speed of human thought and that of light, we are today facing and suffering from the symptoms of what may, be accurately defined as an Information Overload, or Information Fatigue Syndrome.

Its not a question of piles of transcribed papers on your desk; cluttered desks arise from cluttered minds; or maybe vice-versa. Bureaucrats, business executives, teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, are aware that no sooner they get through the stuff on their desks, the computer will be ready to spew out more. Who is to go through this unlimited information, and how much of it will actually end up being knowledge? Does the additional information make you anxious about the fact that maybe you have not read the entire data, and that there may be more relevant stuff yet to come? How do you know when to stop ? At what point do you freeze everything and get on with your work , which was due, sometimes, yesterday ? Is the human brain equipped to handle information overloads like this ?

And so we come to what has been called "Information Fatigue Syndrome" or IFS by British psychologist David Lewis, who was researching the connection between Information overload and poor health, stress, tension, and sometimes, even lack on analytical ability. People with IFS become unable to perform in-depth analysis, which leads to difficulty in reaching conclusions. Other psychological problems involve irritability, tension, feelings of helplessness, and mental anguish. Fatigue, stomach pains, failing eyesight, insomnia, headaches, forgetfulness, bad temper, and computer rage, are some additional problems people face.

We plug in our minds to the great information socket and tune out. Never mind that most of the feedback we receive is irrelevant. The Internet has now become like a continuous TV program, with commercials indistinguishable from the actual program. Information keeps hitting you with regular waves, and the sheer quantity has disabled you from analysing what is useful and what is not.

Being a consumerist society spoilt for choice is also an unavoidable side effect of having so many avenues for easy spitting-out of information. Do we need to know details of 20 different styles of jeans to choose from, 24 flavours of jam, 38 types of breakfast cereal and 22 models of mobile phone, and that is just naming maybe 5% of the items on which numerous choices are available ?

Children have not escaped the Information fatigue Syndrome either.

Two hundred sixty-five Texas fourth and eighth graders responded to a survey asking them whether they had experienced information overload, what strategies they used to reduce the overload condition, and what words would describe their feelings while overloaded. Turns out that the fourth graders had a higher overload percentage than did the eighth graders, 86 percent compared to 67 percent. Can this say anything more about the increasing sophistication of the older children in manipulating masses of information and their growing experience with informational analysis and synthesis?

Among other questions, the students were queried about their feelings when overloaded with information.

Among fourth graders, the most prevalent feeling was that of being confused and frustrated. Then came, being mad, angry, or even furious. When asked to associate a physical symptom with a sense of being overloaded, they responded with headache, tiredness, depression, or sickness .

When eighth graders were queried in a similar manner, the findings were slightly different. Ten eighth graders, all male, responded with vulgarity. While boys responded with anger and cursing, the girls described themselves as tense, stressed, or experiencing panic. Interestingly, fourth grade girls felt as if they were exploding and bursting, and responded to overload with irritability. By eighth grade, fatigue and panic have set in. Either the older girls learned to internalize overload or their active anger had been socialized out.

Maybe we need to do a "rethink" on dealing with open ended searches that spew out tsunamis of information. Is Attention Deficit a defiant response that indicates a planned ignorance and inattention to the information overload ? Are adult stresses related to the realisation that complete control over work activities is an impossible proposition ? Do we need to think of using faster and faster computer speeds in other ways ? Was there a life before the Internet, email and instant communications ?

There are some things e can do to avoid being a part of the Information Fatigue Syndrome.

STOP being an "informavore" (informavore (in.FORM.uh.vohr) n. A person who consumes information.)

Reduce passive information intake : This means we reduce interaction with any media that we do not actively interact with. If your search throws out 2,800 links, do not pursue a hundred of them in a wild quest for knowing more. There is just so much information you can process and remember. (Think of how you mindlessly watch asinine commercials when watching a TV program, without worrying about the utility of it all).

Be still : Learn to occasionally rest your mind. Different people have different techniques. Some folks can instinctively meditate anywhere. Some need to indulge in vigorous physical exercise to bring on mental peace. A rested mind is a smart mind. Tune out the "noise "factor", and you will then see the main points.

Learn to "flow" : This is the complete opposite of information fatigue. "Flowing" is the ability to concentrate on one activity so as to be able to mentally exclude anything else. Have a daily checklist of stuff to do in the house before starting work. Make it a habit of doing that without fail, daily. (You actually check your email more regularly than that, don't you?)

Turn off email, your browser and all telephones (for a while everyday) : Alarming , as this may sound to some electronically challenged folks , there is a world beyond emails and browsers. There also existed a fairly peaceful world before cell phones appeared on the scene, and we were all doing just fine , thank you.

Get physically comfortable : An uncomfortable posture in a fashionable but stressfully shaped chair does nothing for you. Sit in a comfortable sofa, have some soothing music playing. Music that brings back memories is even better. Too many machines in the room and the thermostat setting going for a toss , either too cold or too hot , is an invitation for the onset of information fatigue. So pay attention to your physical environment and get comfortable.

And finally, whatever work you do, remember, that while you may be aware of the desired results, over focusing on the goal to the exclusion of everything else doesn't necessarily get you faster to the goal. A balanced approach with some pitfalls and troubles probably ends up teaching you a lot more in the long run.

Come to think of it, maybe acronyms came about consequent to people becoming lazy about writing the details, given the vast information sea they were drowning in. And so we had folks saying ROTFL and pretending to be smart, whereas it was much more fun to perform that and interact with someone else. And only dumb types learnt to say YMMV; for heavens sake, EVERYONE'S mileage varies, that's what being a different person is all about and that's what makes everyone else exciting and interesting.

In one of the great ironies of information age , it appears that while information can be trivially copied and the information bandwidth continues to widen, the individual's attention bandwidth is as narrow as ever. You abuse the bandwidth, and network problems ensue. We see that everyday in offices of psychiatrists, psychologists, and school counsellors. Its all a question of balance.

At the end of the day, the human brain and human mind is vastly superior to the computer. Like someone said, if you drop a ton of apples on a computer, it will not come up with the theory of gravity.....

Maybe the solution to IFS is as simple as a wastepaper basket ?

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