Section 7.5. Information Overload

7.5. Information Overload

As Calvin Mooers told us back in 1959, people may not want information, because having it can be painful and troublesome. When it comes to information, sometimes less is more, as we see in Figure 7-3. We know this explicitly from studies that show an inverted-U relationship between the volume of information and decision quality. In fact, a recent study at Kings College in London showed that information overload harms concentration more than marijuana.[*] We also know this tacitly from experience. We have all felt overwhelmed by details, and we all choose, every day of our lives, to ignore vast quantities of data.

[*] "Info-overload harms concentration more than marijuana." New Scientist, April 30, 2005, p. 6. Available at

Figure 7-3. The inverted U

We choose not to choose. We rely on habit. We trust familiar brands. We copy our colleagues. But the decisions only multiply fastereducation, entertainment, insurance, investmentwe are inundated with products, services, plans, and promotions. And it makes us miserable. As Barry Schwartz explains in The Paradox of Choice:

As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety....But clinging tenaciously to all choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfactioneven to clinical depression.[]

] And the results are not good. Consider the following statistics: according to a National Institutes of Health study, in 1997, the U.S. public spent $36-$47 billion on the complementary and alternative medicines and therapies listed in Figure 7-4.[*] Of this amount, $12-$20 billion was paid out of pocket, including $5 billon on herbal products.

[*] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines (NCCAM),

Figure 7-4. Complementary and alternative medicines (NCCAM,

That's a lot of money, particularly when it comes on top of the $1.5 trillion we already spend on health insurance, doctor's visits, and prescription medicines. In spite of my recent awakening to the power of mind-body, my guess is that more than half of this money is wasted, though I must admit I'm not certain which half. Or perhaps people are simply paying a high price for the placebo effect. In any event, what we're witnessing is a divergence of beliefs, as information and decision overload induces stress-related problems while simultaneously reducing our ability to identify and manage root causes.

Because our trust in authority has eroded, we must find our own solutions. We select our sources. We choose our news. But since we're swimming in information, our decision quality is poor. So, how do we stop from drowning? We fall back on instinct. We retreat from data. We drop pull and endure push. We pay attention only to messages that find us. And when we do search, we skim. A keyword or two into Google, a few good hits, and we're done. We satisfice with reckless abandon, waffling back and forth between too much information and not enough. And, we make some very bad decisions as individuals, organizations, and societies. But wait. It gets worse. You don't know the half of it.

7.6. Graffiti Theory

We're starting to understand the pathology of information consumption and its long-term effects on decisions, thanks to novel insights flowing once again from AI. Our guide to this part of the maze is Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm Computing and Handspring, architect of the Palm Pilot and Treo, and inventor of an alphabet called Graffiti, shown in Figure 7-5.

Figure 7-5. Graffiti by Jeff Hawkins

He has made great contributions to mobile computing, yet our interest lies not in Jeff's past but in his passion, which he confesses in his book On Intelligence:

I am crazy about brains. I want to understand how the brain works, not just from a philosophical perspective...but in a detailed nuts and bolts engineering way. My desire is not only to understand what intelligence is and how the brain works, but how to build machines that work the same way. I want to build truly intelligent machines.[*]

[*] On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee. Times Books (2004), p. 1.

Jeff argues that "AI suffers from a fundamental flaw in that it fails to adequately address what intelligence is or what it means to understand something."[] His quest for understanding has led him, through the fields of computer science, biophysics, linguistics, and neurophysiology, to an intense focus on the neocortex:

] Hawkins, p. 13.

A thin sheet of neural tissue that envelops most of the older parts of the brain...Almost everything we think of as intelligenceperception, language, imagination, mathematics, art, music, and planningoccurs here. Your neocortex is reading this book.[]

] Hawkins, p. 40.

And Jeff's path-breaking work at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute has led to a new model of intelligence, the memory-prediction framework:

The brain doesn't compute the answers to problems; it retrieves the answers from memory...the entire cortex is a memory system. It isn't a computer at all.[*]

[*] Hawkins, p. 68.

The neocortex stores hierarchical sequences of patterns in invariant form, and recalls those patterns auto-associatively. This lets us recall complete patterns when given only partial or distorted inputs. In the reflection of a flawed ring, we see Plato's perfect circle. In the myriad breeds of canine familiaris, we recognize the category of dog and the tree of Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia. And in three notes, we find the words to a song.

Of course, memory is only half the story. Its conclusion lies in the future:

Our brains use stored memories to constantly make predictions about everything we see, feel, and hear...what we perceive is a combination of what we sense and of our brains' memory-derived predictions....Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence.[]

] Hawkins, p. 89.

Jeff argues convincingly that when we take a step, catch a ball, read a poem, or write a book, we draw upon experience to make predictions. We use the past to see the future. Input begets output. Information shapes behavior. Which brings our train of thought back to graffiti, in the form of illegal art on the streets and subways of New York City, shown in Figure 7-6.

Figure 7-6. New York City subway graffiti (The graffiti epidemic in full swing. September 1980. Photo by Steve Zabel, collection of Joe Testagrose. From

In the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains the remarkable drop in crime rates in the Big Apple during the 1990sin five years, total crime fell by 50%, murder by 65%as evidence that little things can make a big difference. Specifically, he makes the case for the power of environmental context under the rubric of "broken windows" theory:

If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread....In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti...are the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.[*]

[*] Gladwell, p. 141.

In other words, exposure to seemingly insignificant misdemeanors over time can forge a psyche more prone to violent crime. Gladwell uses the 1984 shooting of four unarmed teenagers on the NYC subway by Bernhard Goetz as a case in point. Goetz's split second decision to shoot in "self-defense" resulted from years in an atmosphere of pervasive lawlessness. As his biographer notes, the bullets were "aimed at targets that existed as much in his past as in the present." Input begets output. Information shapes behavior.

Which brings us to graffiti theory, my corollary to both memory-prediction and broken windows, which suggests that all information that flows through our senses continuously and unconsciously shapes our memories, beliefs, predictions, decisions, and behaviors. We are born with instinct, but in matters of intuition, we are lifetime learners. Information is data that makes a difference, literally. It changes our minds, physically.

This is why I feel a twist in my gut when I think about today's standard information fare. At a time when the old-line media of newspapers, radio, and TV broadcast outlets are controlled by a handful of corporations, there's enormous potential for folded feedback, as the predictions of a few become input for the many. We know this from research:

People mistook the pervasiveness of newspaper stories about homicides, accidents, or firesvivid, salient, and easily available to memoryas a sign of the frequency of the events these stories profiled. This distortion causes us to miscalculate dramatically the various risks we face in life, and thus contributes to some very bad choices....When you hear the same story everywhere you look and listen, you assume it must be true.[]

] Schwartz, p. 6061.

And, we're seeing it already in the growing polarization of beliefs, as we become victims of repetition and rhetoric. Politics shifts gears from differing opinions to different matters of fact. Medicine gets co-opted by drug sellers and spin doctors. Evolution is just a theory, like global warming and weapons of mass destruction. It's hard to find the truth, especially in a Super Size Me culture slap happy on soft think and content nuggets.

But if you look real hard, you can find the truth, or at least that's the theory driving Steven Levitt, one of the world's most brilliant and unusual economists. Levitt's bizarre curiosity, along with a gift for regression analysis, makes him a perfect candidate for exposing the untruths of conventional wisdom. For example, he really turned heads in 2003 by proving that "If you both own a gun and have a swimming pool in the backyard, the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is."[*]

[*] Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. HarperCollins (2005), p. 146.

Levitt's real passion is crime, and his search for answers leads us back to the "broken windows" of New York City. He studied the same crime drop as Malcolm Gladwell, but Levitt's investigation went deeper and wider. Crime rates did indeed fall precipitously in the 1990s, but the trend began before the police cleaned up New York City, and similar drops occurred simultaneously in cities throughout the United States. Nationwide, nonviolent crime fell by 40% and the teenage murder rate fell by 50%.

So, it's unlikely that policing strategies in New York City deserve much credit. And, one by one, Levitt proves most of the other popular explanations to be false as well.

Crime-drop explanation

Number of citations in major newspapersa

1. Innovative policing strategies


2. Increased reliance on prisons


3. Changes in crack and other drug markets


4. Aging of the population


5. Tougher gun control laws


6. Strong economy


7. Increased number of police


8. All other explanations


Crime-drop explanations cited in articles published from 1991 to 2001 in the 10 largest-circulation papers in the LexisNexis database. Adapted from Freakonomics, p. 120.

So, how does he explain it? In a word, abortion. Levitt argues that the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, resulted in an immediate decrease in unwanted children, which led to the drop in teenage criminal activity 15 years later. Steven Levitt makes a powerful case. It's certainly hard to dispute his data. And yet, his truth is an uncomfortable one. This is the type of information Calvin Mooers knew people may not want. This is the kind of news that the many may choose to ignore.

The power of our culture and our surrounding information environment to mold us is nothing new. As Herbert Simon noted:

A man does not live for months or years in a particular position in an organization, exposed to some streams of communication, shielded from others, without the most profound effects upon what he knows, believes, attends to, hopes, wishes, emphasizes, fears, and proposes.[*]

[*] Surowiecki, p. 42.

But what is new is the level of control we each have over our sources of input. And the Web, in particular, provides access to myriad sources of news, opinion, and data from all over the world. Google News delivers,, and A standard keyword search opens the widest of windows on the narrowest of topics. We have the power to inform ourselves like never before. We can manage our information diet, and thus the health and well-being of our rational and intuitive decisions.

So, when it comes to the problem of uninformed decisions, I'd like to say the Web is the solution, but that would be only a half truth, for it can just as easily perpetuate ignorance. In addition to a bias for free and digital, power laws and preferential attachment create dominant hubs and fragmented discussion. A few companies and people capture most of the eyeballs. And in this realm of high precision and low recall, only 15% of web pages include links to opposing viewpoints.[] Internet topology features countless islands of discourse, isolated by social structure and semantics. For those without a compass, these islands become breeding grounds for misinformation and apophenia.

] Barabasi, p. 170.

It's at these degrees of confluence, where information feeds ignorance, that you'll find librarians ranting about literacy. As experts in the critical selection, evaluation, and use of information, we're worried by people's preference for the Web over the library. We're concerned by users who ignore the influence of advertising on source reliability.[] Why search the Web when weve got LexisNexis? Why read blogs when we've got books? Why quote Wikipedia when we've got Encyclopædia Britannica? Why choose Google's graffiti ghetto over our scholarly society? Librarians understand what's at stake, and we fear where we're headed. We're canaries in the coal mine, singing a familiar refrain:

[] "Researching and Shaping Information Literacy Initiatives in Relation to the Web by John Buschman and Dorothy Warner. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 31, no. 1, p. 15.

Information literacy is no longer just a library issue.
It is the critical issue for the twenty-first century.[§]

[§] "Information literacy, a worldwide priority for the twenty-first century" by Ilene Rockman (2003). Reference Services Review, vol. 31, no. 3: Research Library, p. 209.

Some heed our warning. For instance, a United Nations declaration puts:

Information literacy squarely at the center of effective participation in an information society and on equal footing with the educational basics of the 3-Rs.[*]

[*] Buschman and Warner, p. 13.

And, to some extent, information literacy is being incorporated into K-12 education, where it can make the greatest impact. But today, in truth, most people don't listen. Librarians are like doctors, preaching what's good for us, while breaking their own rules. They use Google profusely and rarely speak Boolean. And, in any case, they're not speaking with one voice. In fact, the Internet only makes the fault lines more pronounced.

I, for instance, lean toward the liberal side of librarianship. I see bias in the facts of the Wall Street Journal and the Encyclopædia Britannica, and I find real value in the opinion of blogs and the collaboratively authored free content of the Wikipedia. Like relevance, authority is subjective and ascribed by the viewer. Thus, I believe our society needs better information literacy, but I'm not sure we have yet built the understanding or consensus requisite to teach. And, I'm sure that when push comes to shove, access trumps literacy. Information that's hard to find will remain information that's hardly found.

In this sense, it's ironic that in the process of writing this book, my first visit to a physical library was to find the last article, "Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment" by Herbert Simon. For most of my research, I found what I needed from where I sit, via the free Web, online databases, and my personal bookshelf. But this ancient text wasn't available online, not for free or for fee. So, I was forced to visit the University of Michigan Graduate Library in search of Psychological Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, 1956.

This arduous task took a couple of hours, and it wasn't easy, though the thin white line shown in Figure 7-7 was a helpful guide as I negotiated the maze of books to BF1.P7 in the South Stacks on the eighth floor, where I promptly snapped up the article with the camera in my Treo.

And, as I liberated the words of Herbert Simon from their dusty bindings, it occurred to me that the next hands to touch this crumbling text would be working at the behest of Google to digitize all seven million volumes in this canonical library collection.

And, I found myself, once again, inspired by the ambition of Larry Page and Sergey Brin to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, for these are not just words, but ideas linked to actions with profound social impact.

Figure 7-7. The University of Michigan Graduate Library

I can't imagine how anyone who cares about learning and literacy could not be excited by the goals of Google's Library Project, which are summed up as follows:

This project's aim is simple: help maintain the preeminence of books and libraries in our increasingly Internet-centric culture by making these information resources an integral part of the online experience. We hope to guide more users to their local libraries; to digital archives of some of the world's greatest research institutions; and to out-of-print books they might not be able to find anywhere elseall while carefully respecting authors' and publishers' copyrights.[*]

[*] Google Print, Library Project,

The collections of the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, the New York Public Library, and Oxford University will be accessible to anyone, any time, anywhere. This is amazing. The world's greatest works of art, history, science, engineering, law, and literature are about to join the conversation we call the Web. Through the lens of graffiti theory, this is a major upgrade to our collective memory, which will ultimately shape our predictions, decisions, and actions. In the end, computers are not about the creation of artificial minds, but the augmentation of real intelligence.

And, our networks are not just about cold hard facts and frictionless data streams, for it's the inspiration in information that separates man from machine. This is why I love the Web. It opens a door to a garden of forking paths, a labyrinth of symbols, wild with ideas and memories and myriad futures present. The Web lets us find our own way. We choose our links and our leaders. We decide where to go, what to believe, and who to follow. Our garden is a maze of heroes and memes, where what we find shapes who we become. Sadly, our story nears its end, but before we part, let's wander through a few more sites and sources that reflect the pregnant promise of ambient findability.