Remember the words of American writer Gertrude Stein? How “everybody gets so
much information all day long that they lose their common sense”? Having died in
1946, she couldn’t have known how prophetic that would turn out to be. In this
age of digital data overload, we all run the risk of ending up as virtual
road-kill on the information superhighway.
If Stein were here today, perhaps she would struggle to visualise the
incredible volumes of data that are being produced in the digital age most of
us here today do. Analyst firm IDC estimates that by 2010, 0.988 zettabytes a
unit of information or computer storage equal to one sextillion bytes, or just
under 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1021) bytes of data will be produced
every year. To put this into a context Stein and the rest of us can attempt to
grasp, IDC says the world’s digital data in 2006 could theoretically fill 12
separate stacks of novels, each of which would extend the 238,607 miles from the
Earth to the moon. By 2010, the total volume of digital data would fill a stack
of books that would span the 3,660 million miles between the sun and Pluto and
then back again.
But zettabytes are not the only big numbers associated with our brave new
world of digital data overload. A recent Basex study report, Information
Overload: We have met the enemy and he is us, estimates that email,
instant-messaging interruptions and blog-reading by ‘knowledge workers’ will
drain the US economy of $588bn this year. It claims digital distractions are
consuming 28% of an American knowledge worker’s day. As there is about one-fifth
of the number of knowledge workers here in the UK as in the US, this means
information overload could cost the UK more than $100bn in 2008.
This mind-boggling volume of data and information sat just a click away
behind your computer screen or perhaps awaiting your perusal in a list of
unread emails or texts has been identified as causing a feeling of deep panic
in some that has been dubbed ‘Infomania’. Coined in the 1980s, the term has only
recently emerged as a recognised psychological condition, defined as a
debilitating state of information excess caused by panic associated with failure
to cope with backlogs of data. The problem is further compounded by continuous
interruptions from phones, instant messaging, text messaging and email.
Infomania is now understood to be a real danger for hard-pressed workers unable
to resist the compulsion to continuously check their messages.
As a result of this “digital addiction”, workers can lose their sense of
priorities, start to panic, become unproductive and frequently become too ill to
work. A recent study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry for computer giant
HP found that staff distracted by email and phone calls suffered a 10-point fall
in IQ scores, a figure estimated to be more than twice the fall found in
marijuana smokers. This paints the bizarre picture that spaced out,
reefer-smoking staff could be more productive than straight, but stressed-out
workers dealing with information overload. Indeed, there is a reason why the
infamous BlackBerry has gained the slang name ‘Crackberry’: who hasn’t been
seduced away from actual work for some minutes by a long, though pointless
multi-person email conversation thread?
It is ironic that, having engendered the information revolution, some of the
world’s largest technology companies are now struggling to stuff the genie back
into the bottle. Xerox, Microsoft, Google, Intel and IBM among others have
teamed up to establish a non-profit group, the Information Overload Research
Group (IORG). With the support of industry players including Morgan Stanley,
Stanford University and the University of California, the group aims to research
and publicise the problem of Infomania, advise on best practice and help
alleviate what it euphemistically describes as “digital distraction”.
And not a moment too soon, it would seem. An internal study by Intel su
ggests that employees who were encouraged to limit the number of digital
interruptions they dealt with were much more productive afterwards. Intel
trialled ‘zero email Fridays’, which encouraged workers to use face-to-face
communication instead, where possible. Sixty per cent of those who took part
recommended it for wider use across the company, Intel said. Staff talking to
each other surely not?
Staff at Google, meanwhile, tried out a service called ‘Email Addict’ that
locks them out of their email inbox for 15 minutes after clicking on a “take a
break” button. When reaching the end of their virtual tether, the screens turn
grey and displays the message: “Take a walk, get some real work done, or have a
snack. We’ll be back in 15 minutes!”
It is profoundly unsettling that the very firms that sold us these
distracting technologies are now, themselves, struggling to come to terms with
their own offerings. Physician heal thyself but please, heal the rest of us as
well before we all lose our common sense.