Overcome information overload by trusting redundancy

My latest Guardian column, "Information overload? Time to relax then," describes a technique for overcoming "information overload" by letting go of the idea that if you overlook something in your inbox, RSS reader, or other feed that it'll disappear forever. The faster your feeds get, the more the good stuff gets repeated -- trust the redundancy and embrace non-deterministic information consumption!

This was a real struggle at first. There is a world of difference between reading every word uttered in a community and reading just a few choice ones. But soon the anxiety gave way to contentment and even delight: it turned out that "overload" has a wonderful corollary: redundancy.

Anything really worth seeing wouldn't just appear once and vanish. The really interesting stuff would find its way into other discussions, and early conferencing systems made it easy enough to back my way through the forums I was ignoring or skimming to find the important thing I'd missed.

This pattern went on to repeat itself again and again. Once, I could read all the Usenet discussion groups my ISP carried, then only a selection, and then only one or two plus a longer list of groups I'd dip into now and again when time allowed.

Information overload? Time to relax then

(Image: LOGO2.0 part I and II, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Ludwig Gatzke's photostream. More.)


  1. I mean, kinda… but isn’t this just laziness to think, “Oh, I don’t need to worry about paying attention, actually observing, and independently determining the worth of individual news items. I’ll just wait for several others to tell me they’re important.” It’s how good important and under-represented news voices fall through the cracks, with we imagining that all creams rise when often gems appear in the stream only to wash away and never be seen again, followed by an unending repetition of common, worthless rocks.

  2. Good to know I don’t have to actually buy the Guardian or even visit its website read the best bits of the column.

  3. The downside to this approach, though, is that its going to leave you with a very superficial understanding of a lot of the things people are talking about.

    1. One can probably split out the information feeds that provide depth and a “slow news” model from the ones Cory is describing. There are also meta feeds like the Columbia Journalism Review that compare coverage on specific stories.

      I think I personally hit the overload threshold when Twitter became mainstream. I still can’t bring myself to use it much except when there’s an event unfolding like the protest in Eqypt.

  4. Marshall McLuhan recommended exactly the same thing… in 1969! “Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern-recognition.” – Counterblast, p. 132.

  5. I recently restarted my Economist subscription and my problem is that now that I’m reading the Economist on the train, I’m not getting around to reading any of the books I have. I’ve got to figure out either how to get more book-reading time in, or learn to just skim the Economist.

  6. I used to have this problem. I was a compulsive web surfer who would read hundreds of blogs a day, not missing a single post. It ate up all my free time and actually stressed me out a lot. Then one day I decided I just didn’t give a fuck anymore, and life has been much better ever since.

  7. Very interesting take on this issue. The key thing that everyone seems to be agreeing on is that the fundamental thing her is emotional and not logical. To me, that’s a great insight into the nature of information overload.

  8. I used to visit a website that looked just like the image posted; where all the icons were links the the top ranked English sites. when my hard drive crashed I lost my bookmarks and never found the site again. HELP!

      1. thanks Cowicide,
        that tineye tool is cool.
        the website wasn’t exactly like the image show though, and it wasn’t the milliondollar webpage either.
        The icon links were divided into function areas.
        The idea was that this would be the ultimate home page cause the user was one click away from all favourite websites making all but the most esoteric bookmarks unnecessary.
        the best website ever, the holy grail even, and I lost it ~_~,

  9. Surely there are examples of important things that have only been mentioned once or a few times. And, of course, the theory is unlikely to be disproved as said important things ipso facto will have disappeared. Seems to amount to too much importance being placed upon the hive mind/reposting.

  10. I agree with the description of online mechanics and the methods to deal with it all; however, I am not sure what those mechanics say about us and our modern information technology paradigm.

    At the very least there is more to it then just popularity and filters. censorship is now both an individual prerogative and an individual necessity.

    Given this, I just have to ask, doesn’t this reality strike a blow at the heart of the egalitarian idea that lots of transparent information leads to a “better” informed public? Information is inherently only as useful as far as it can be interpreted by the reader. Beyond that the excess, and uninterpreted will just be binned.

    Don’t get me wrong the government shouldn’t stop shareing statistics and other information, I am just pointing out that the government has shared and made transparent such statistics for years, and nobody really paid much attention to it, even now. For example, the telemetry from a NASA mission is great, but that information is only inherently usable by a small subset of the total population.

    The internet only “informs” an individual in-so-far as the information is useful to that individual. Or in other words, aside from the “popularity” variable, very little has changed since the widespread use and acceptance of the web. Things might have accelerated but they haven’t fundamentally changed. That’s what I am reading between the lines of this article.

  11. I used to obsessively track blogs, email, et al, but since so much of what I read has branched off from other things I read (online that is) the redundancy factor definitely play in. If it’s super-cool don’t miss stuff, it’s usually linked to on multiple sites.

    And, hey, can’t know everything no matter how much we try. Focus on what’s important now is key to managing the input.

  12. It would be nice if people embraced pattern recognition.

    Most people won’t

    The masses will just let somebody else filter the info for them. Dressed in new techonology (directly to their smart phone, bluetooth, arsehole, etc). But they’ll let some other person, or corporation actually, be the gatekeeper.

    If you are not willing to be an educated consumer, then you are bound to end up eating what somebody else feeds you.

    Sad but true.

    We are the minority.


    1. You are glossing over the fact that it really doesn’t matter how “informed” you are. You CANNOT use the internet without using some sort of third-party, independently owned technology.

      All the original, and most basic, protocols for the internet are third-party. And as you progress, higher functioning protocols have been built on top of those.

      Like it or not your level of education has no effect on your Google search results. A search for “Bikes” on Google will return the same results regardless of your IQ.

  13. I am not talking about IQ. I am talking about you, me, boingboingers for example being above average in their info consumption. Probably have a good working BS-meter, know how to check multiple sources, verify online, etc.

    Compare that to some poor sap that reads a free commuter paper (Metro, 24) or watches O’Reilly.

    That’s what i mean.

    Shit, i know people (educated, moneyed, travelled – whathave you) that get their news form their MSN home page. So Wisco is not happening, the middle east stuff is all one big distant blur and Obama still hasn’t shown his birth certificate. Ah, but ask them if starlet XYZ wore panties to the party last night…

    You can only recognize the pattern if you have enough fabric to begin with and stand back. Otherwise the big picture is lost.


  14. probably a bit off, but i really liked this article. finally we can add a few layers to baudrillard’s statements regarding information (long story short: information exhausts itself in the process of communication, the result being that of information devouring its own content – and meaning alongside it). Adding redundancy (and its implicit socio-technological mechanics) to the bleak picture of baudrillard’s philosophy seems to lighten up the mood a bit.

    Quite far off from my field, but i see some architectural theories benefiting from this…

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