On Friday May 21, 2010, millions visiting the Google home page to discovered it had been infiltrated by white dots and ghosts. Curious, many clicked a button labeled “Insert Coin.” The logo went black. The word “ready” appeared in the center of the screen. The classic eight-bit start up music played. Within seconds Pac-Man was eating his way around the Google logo as nostalgia flooded players.
Getting bored or returning to work, players moved on with their day. No harm done — or so they thought. Data collected by employee monitoring and statistic-tracking service RescueTime shows a different story. Typically, Google users a day usually spend 11 seconds on the site’s homepage. That Friday, 504.7 million Google users spent approximately 36 seconds more on the page. On an individual scale, the increased time on Google is negligible, but on a worldwide scale RescueTime calculated that Google Pac-Man contributed 4.8 million hours to the average 33.6 million hours of time spent on the page. In the working world, that number translates to $120 million lost to the distracted mind. It seems Pac-Man was eating more than just colorful fruit in Google’s tribute to the game’s 30th anniversary.
Lost productivity is just one symptom of %information overload%, a term first coined in Alvin Toffler’s 1970 novel “Future Shock.” The term refers to the difficulties of filtering and focusing on the huge volumes of information available at one’s fingertips. Ultimately, more information which one must filter through, combined with the growing amount of less reliable user-generated content, leads to less effective processing of information, causing shortened attention spans and altering the way one thinks.
“Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate,” — Alvin Toffler.
The concept of information overload has existed for centuries. When the printing press was first invented, people had easier access to books and newspapers, presenting more information than could be communicated in the days of oral learning or hand-copied books. Toffler described information overload as the information age’s version of sensory overload, a psychological condition in which one’s senses, such as sight or smell, are bombarded and as a result one cannot function or make decisions properly. He hypothesized that information overload had many of the same effects as sensory overload, yet on higher cognitive functions.
Today, information overload continues to worsen due to the constantly increasing amount of user-generated material. More information is not necessarily a negative. Yet, with no certainty that information on the internet is truthful and reliable, people must process more of it, leading them to decrease the amount of attention they give to each source. Shorter attention spans and an addiction to information are some of the most common symptoms of information overload.
According to Dr. Susan Barnes, associate director of RIT’s Lab for Social Computing, the internet contributed to information overload in unexpected ways. “What the internet was supposed to do was help information overload by organizing the information so people could find easily what they wanted to read,” says Barnes. “But with user generated content … it’s increasing the overload.”
“More data [will be] generated in the next four years than in the history of the world.” — Adian C. Ott, “The 24-Hour Consumer”
This statistic predicts the increasing amount of information using the sheer amount of data held on the internet. In 2010, there were about 1.2 zettabytes, of information available on the internet. One zettabyte is equal to one billion terabytes. A single terabyte is a common commercially available unit of storage for a computer hard drive, priced at about $100. In “the 24-Hour Costumer,” Ott estimates that in 2020 the entire internet will contain 35 zettabytes of information. While machines can transfer all this data at two million bits per second, a human can only absorb 126 bits per second.
With the sheer volumes of information available at the click of a mouse, filtering and processing information becomes critical to success. Based on raw numbers alone, filtering is no easy task. As of 2010, there were 255 million websites, 21.4 million of those added that year alone. According to web measuring company Pingdom, 107 trillion emails were sent in 2010. Three billion photos are uploaded to Facebook a month, 35 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute and 25 billion tweets were sent in 2010.
With these numbers, filtering becomes more a test of endurance than skill. In an idealistic world, a person would read through all the sources and compile the necessary data or research. In the days of print media, deep, analytical reading produced the most thorough research. In the information age, skimming has become a crucial skill. While skimming can capture the essence of a source and is in fact necessary when navigating the internet, mistakes will be made since thoroughness will be compromised for speed when skimming. More mistakes leads to less effective processing of information and ultimately impacts productivity in schools and in the workplace.
The physical symptoms of information overload, the inability to cope brought on by the stress of too much information, have also been shown to directly decrease productivity. According to a survey in the book “Overload!“ by Jonathan C. Spira,, 94 percent of respondents at some point felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation. In this state of incapacitation, mistakes are made and productivity lost as employees attempt to deal with the flood of information bursting though the computer. According to Spira, reading and organizing 100 emails can occupy over half a work day. Just as the extra 30 seconds on Google hurt profits, an information meltdown or, more commonly, the extra time it takes to sort information costs the United States 28 billion hours a year, or $1 trillion in 2010. Hurting more than just productivity, the need to process more in less time is shorting the average attention span across the country.
“The addictive nature of the web can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds, the same as a goldfish.” - BBC article
With the amount of unhelpful web sites and emails one has to trudge through to find the material he wants increasing day by day and the amount of minutes in a day staying the same, one must pay less attention to each source to get through all the information. Instead of spending 10 minutes reading a single email, one has to spend one minute on each of 10 emails to get through all the data, shorting one’s attention span when surfing the entire internet.
In “Overload!” Spira states that it takes five minutes to recover from a 30 second distraction. The average length of an online video is 2.7 minutes. The average view of a web site is 10 seconds or less, with only 10 percent of views extending beyond two minutes. These statistics, combined with the shortening attention spans nationally is lowering efficiency and forcing people to either multitask or comprise quality.
Children are often taught the advantages of multitasking with regards to time management. However, recent research has proven that multitasking is more detrimental in terms of information processing and quality. When attempting to complete two tasks at the same time, one usually pays less attention to both tasks. Therefore, according to a New York Times article, multitaskers wind up doing mediocre work and confusing information sources. The issues of information overload, attention span and multi-tasking are all interrelated: The increased amount of data causes a shorter attention span which leads people to believe they must multitask to complete work in time.
Perhaps the most prominent problem with information overload is that it affects how data is processed and the information people choose to process. A shining example of this is that due to shorter attention spans, people desire the most information they can get to judge another person in as short a period of time as possible. As Barnes explains, in a democratic America, people need to read and write in order to make decisions. In the nineteenth century, politicians would debate for whole days, and people would listen and judge based on personal and political standpoints. Today, people still desire to know enough about a politician to judge him or her, but due to shorter attention spans they desire this information as quickly as possible. The quickest way: a candidate’s social and personal life. By filtering all the information on the politician to find only the details on their juicy personal life, Barnes theorizes that information overload and its symptoms change what information people seek.
“Information overload has caused people to lose their ability to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate, and even reason and think.” — Jonathan B. Spira, “Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization”
Over the past few decades, technology has soared to new heights as devices continue to get smaller and more powerful. Now, wherever one is the world, internet access is as easy as taking out a phone and opening the browser. In an instant one’s handset transforms from a communications device to a portal to hundreds of millions of websites, all available with a touch of the finger. Connectivity is no longer a barrier, and now internet speeds on-the-go are approaching what wired access can deliver, and people have noticed. Ott approximates that there are five billion mobile connections and predicts that, at this rate, there will be 50 billion in 2020. He also estimates that people can be connected to the internet up to 12 hours a day, seeing about 34 billion bits of information daily.
Instant gratification and, by extension, short attention spans feed the desire to be constantly connected. Just as the need for quick food spurred giant growth in the fast food industry, the need for easy and quick access to information about friends, family, or even any random fact one could want to know has lead companies to expand into information on the go. Similarly to how people become addicted to fast food, people are addicted to the flow of information. According to web analyst Ken Burbary, people on average spend 15 hours and 33 minutes on Facebook a month, 23 minutes per visit. Each day, 200 million people access the site via a mobile device.
Not only does this addiction lower productivity, it forces people to be constantly connected to their job and does not allow them to take any time off for relaxing. The separation of the home and office allows humans to cope, yet business journal McKinsey Quarterly states the merging of the two through the always connected mentality of offices today can lead to depression caused by the limited time removed from the stresses of work and responsibility. It also hurts creativity, which comes from the ability to think freely and not limited by conditions.
The inevitable increase in information each day does not mean information overload is unavoidable. There are steps one can take to avoid the overload and increase productivity in his or her own life. The simplest advice, offered by Barnes and other experts is to spend some time away from technology, or at the minimum monitor one’s internet usage. Set a time limit when going on the internet, single-task, and focus on quality, not quantity when researching. When dealing with email, check them only twice a day maximum, throw away garbage emails immediately, and set folders for automatic sorting. Lastly, take regular breaks and walk away from machines to give your brain some downtime.
Avoiding information is impossible in the growing digital age. “The information age is marked by a shift from people producing products to working with information,” says Barnes. Information has become the number one product in the world, and there is no shortage of it. Yet as statistics climb into the trillions and connectivity becomes an issue of the past, coping with information is becoming a skill necessary for success in the world. In this case the simplest solution is the best solution: Turn off Google Pac-Man and go off the grid: the technology is not going anywhere.