Tuesday, August 29, 2006
"At a certain stage, people will be confronted with more information than they effectively can process: this situation we may call information overload (Berghel, 1997; Kirsh, 2000). This means that part of that information will be ignored, forgotten, distorted or otherwise lost. The problem is that we cannot say which part that is: the only way to tell is to compare the information that eventually got processed with the information that we initially got subjected to; yet by our assumption, the latter is too large for us to consider. By definition, the separation between the information that is processed and the one that is not, happens in an only partially conscious, haphazard way, as consciously rejecting information requires processing it. The result is that an individual in a situation of information overload will not only miss out on potentially important information, but moreover be aware that something is missing, while not knowing precisely what is missing and thus feeling a loss of control (Wurman, 1990). Frantic efforts to compensate for the missing data by garnering additional information are self-defeating, as they will merely further bring into focus the intrinsic limitations of the human capacity for cognition. Although from a theoretical point of view the existence of such hard-wired limitations is obvious, in practical situations it is very difficult to estimate precisely how much information a given individual can assimilate. Incorrect estimates will lead either to misplaced confidence, as when a person believes that he or she is well-informed but actually has overlooked some crucial pieces of the puzzle, or to feelings of guilt or shame, as when people know that they cannot cope with the situation, but believe it is because they haven’t researched it hard enough or are too stupid. As Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has studied extensively, a basic condition for well-being is that the challenges of the situation match a person’s skills; whenever the challenges become higher than the skills, well-being is replaced by anxiety and loss of control."