Information overload is defined by Wikipedia as “the difficulty in understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue” – although, ironically, it offers alternative definitions based on multiple sources!
The concept of excessive information is nothing new. Back in the 16th Century, renaissance scholar Erasmus blamed the printing press for creating too much reading material: “Is there anywhere on Earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” But it has really been over the last couple of decades, since self-publishing on the internet became prevalent, that the problem has moved beyond academic circles and crept into the lives of all and sundry.
Until the early 90s, most people relied upon fairly limited sources of information. Consumers had access to books (often borrowing these from libraries, where they could also use microfiche if they wanted to do more extensive research), print newspapers and magazines, radio, four TV channels (in the UK) and sound and video recordings. Academics and professionals additionally had access to sector specific journals and commercially produced databases of information, usually distributed via floppy disks and later CD-ROMs. Most published formats – both written and audio-visual – were expensive to produce and distribute (or broadcast). As such publishers wielded a lot of power but also – crucially for the purposes of information overload – this meant that a very strong content filter was in place. The vast majority of people would never have anything published and the most they could hope for in terms of achieving their 15 minutes of fame was having a letter to the editor printed in their local paper.
Although some tech-savvy individuals started learning HTML and tentatively building their own websites as soon as they had figured out how to get their 28.8k modems talking to their brand new Windows 95 PCs, it took many years for online self-publishing to gradually gain in popularity. It wasn’t until blog and community platforms (like WordPress and MySpace – both launched in 2003) removed the need to understand code in order to publish that things truly took off. In 2000 a grand total of 23 blogs were listed on the internet. By 2006 this had grown to 50 million, by which point Facebook started really taking off and spawning the full panoply of social media services we see today.
According to research from Radicati, the “total number of business and consumer emails sent and received per day will exceed 293 billion in 2019.” Meanwhile, 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, whilst 65 billion WhatsApp messages are sent and 500 million tweets are posted each day. It’s no wonder that we often feel like we are drowning in a sea of information.
There are a plethora of practical issues stemming from information overload, as well as emotional and societal quandaries which have yet to be addressed.
Stress and mental health issues
The late futurologist Alvin Toffler, who popularised the term “information overload”, predicted that it would play a part in increasing levels of social alienation. Although some commentators argue that social media enables people to connect more to one another, the rising mental health epidemic and increased levels of loneliness, especially amongst young people, appears to contradict the assertion that being more connected online translates to better offline connectedness.
Poor decision making
We have a limited cognitive capacity and can only process so much data at any one time, beyond which the brain needs to rest. According to a survey from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) and the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), 36 per cent of organisations are struggling to cope with information overload; Barry Melancon, CEO at the AICPA has said, “We are in the age of big data, and the common wisdom has been that the more, the better. However, our research found that big data is actually making life harder for those charged with decision making in many organisations because they are unable to extract relevant information and turn it into insight.”
The removal of the publishing content filter (described above) means that anyone can disseminate their version of the truth which is then supported by social media echo chambers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed the way personal data can be used to manipulate voters by planting fake news, and Facebook is now facing a $5 billion fine in respect of its shortcomings.
Information overload in legal
The effects of information overload are similar for most professionals, but lawyers are perhaps particularly prone due to the fact that a large part of their work involves keeping up to date with both legal developments and their clients’ affairs. Many solicitors and barristers are now engaging with social media, not just with the aim of promoting their services, but also to keep on top of the latest trends in their niche sectors. Ed Boal, senior solicitor and head of digital media and technology at Stephenson Law, says, “I use Twitter more than any other platform – mostly to ensure that I’m aware of what’s going on and reading other people’s perspectives on things. As a lawyer in the fast-moving tech sector, I would struggle to “give it up” in fear that I would be left uninformed – even embarrassed. At the same time Twitter is like drinking from a firehose and sometimes it can make you feel a kind of anxiety that you’re not as informed as others (which of course will always be the case).”
Lawyers can of course use dedicated legal information resources such as LexisPSL and Practical Law to keep abreast of legal developments which have the effect of re-introducing the content filter. But once lawyers step into the realm of social media – either due to a fear of missing out (FOMO) or because they are trying to promote themselves or their firm – they can end up suffering some of the consequences of information overload.
Various techniques of mitigating information overload and its effects have been put forward. Many of these specifically relate to emails and the quest for Inbox Zero by deploying services such as Slack or Inbox Pause. Technologist Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, argues that we should watch our consumption of information as carefully as we (should) take care of our diet, with suggestions including turning off push notifications, scheduling media consumption and using an old fashioned alarm clock (so the phone isn’t the first thing we look at in the morning).
In France, workers have a legal “right to disconnect” whereby companies with over 50 employees are obliged to consult with their employees on company policies to allow them to disconnect entirely from work; this law has already resulted in at least one fine. Although there is no equivalent law in the UK, the government is finally taking tentative steps towards internet regulation with its Online Harms White Paper – so regulatory techniques may be able to tackle some of the ills of too much information.
Will Richmond-Coggan, a director in the IT and data team at Freeths Solicitors, says that lawyers should remember to stick to core principles when doing online legal research: “Where decisions need to be made based on facts, look for specialised research or, if you are going to get information from generally available sources, make sure you understand the source – how well resourced is it; does it have a political or other axe to grind; is it well respected? As with case law, finding a source which is cited with approval by other authoritative sources is best.”
Social media, Will argues, “is only really useful as a source of information about sentiment, or levels of interest in particular topics and even then, only when used appropriately. It is important to understand that what shows up in your default feed is often curated content – selected based on what is thought most likely to resonate with you. Without doing some suitably neutral keyword searching you are unlikely to find anything other than a biased subset of information on a topic, skewed towards your own preconceptions and preferences.”
It’s also worth mentioning the nuclear option: deleting social media accounts and considering a digital detox. Although lawyers are often encouraged to network on LinkedIn and engage on Twitter, in order to build their business and enhance their profiles, the consequent emotional stresses and strains may actually backfire and cause professional burnout. Maybe it’s time to deactivate your social media accounts and switch off your mobile in the evenings and at weekends; unplug and give your brain a rest?
Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a copywriting agency in Bristol. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @alexheshmaty.
Image cc by sa Wikimedia Commons.