An ecological approach to information overload

I spent a lot of time during lockdown thinking about digital hoarding. I’ve always had a tendency towards hoarding, with material things as well as digital artefacts, in the sense that I have the impulse to collect things I find interesting in the expectation I will enjoy them later. The problem which emerges when we move from a situation of cultural scarcity to one of cultural abundance is that the pool of things we find interesting likely (vastly) outstrips the time available for us to engage with them. This problem was exacerbated during the pandemic when the enforced digitalisation of lockdown met the increase in free time which those without caring responsibilities found themselves grappling with. There was much more to read, watch and listen to as well as more time in which to do it. I found this particularly problematic when it came to the pivot towards webinars, rapidly realising that I could spend much of my working week attending interesting webinars if I was so inclined. It raises the question of how to filter this abundance, taking advantage of the open resources which are available without being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of them.

In recent months I’ve fallen into the habit of what could be described as an ecological approach to information overload. By this I mean that I recognise the material I’m interested in vastly exceeds my capacity to engage with it but that I find it useful to nonetheless register what is out there. This strategy is clearest with regards to online events where I’m now in the habit of registering for every webinar I find interesting, automatically adding it to my calendar but leaving it till the day to decide if I’m going to attend. This means I often get e-mailed the post-event video as well where it can sit in my inbox where the same principle applies. It often gets deleted, sometimes skimmed through and occasionally watched.

What I’m doing in both cases is minimising the time spend registering material I find interesting: signing up to mailing lists with interesting events, automatically adding them to calendar, relying on being sent the post-event videos etc. I’m decreasing the cognitive burden involved in keeping track of things to the maximum extent possible, while placing the burden on the event, newsletter, video etc to grab my attention sufficiently to get me to engage with it. In doing so I’ve tried to suspend the fear of missing out because I’m deeply aware there will always be further interesting things I can engage with. It’s like a river of interesting material which I’ve diverted through my lifeworld which leads little maintenance and will always bring me something of value when I’m inclined to look for it.

Does this resonate with anyone else? I’d be interested in hearing other people’s strategies for dealing with this problem, if indeed you do experience it as a problem.

2 responses to “An ecological approach to information overload”

  1. Fail to see the ‘ecologicality’ of it. Yes, I traversed this same arc to be more time-efficient, but it also plugs into this ( binary of informational marketing strategy of the webinars / web resources. Also all kinds of other biases play into it (‘interest’ is hardly a monolith). Our personal bubbles of info-feed is a complex ecology. I personally often use aesthetics / rhetoric style / language of web resources as an additional criteria to shortlist.

  2. Fair point! I originally put ‘adversarial’ which didn’t capture it either… thanks for sharing, would be interesting to catalogue a wide range of habits people develop about managing this problem.

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