Information Overload Is Bad News

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“Overload!”, the Columbia Journalism Review‘s current cover story, is every bit as overwhelming as its subject.

In a lengthy, thorough explication, Bree Nordenson lays out the results of a study commissioned by the Associated Press to track the news consumption of young adults around the world. The gist of the findings is grim, but hardly surprising: There’s more information out there than ever before, and this is not a good thing. “The American public is no better informed now than it has been during less information-rich times,” Nordenson writes.

Or, in numerical terms: “Two hundred and ten billion e-mails are sent each day. Say goodbye to the gigabyte and hello to the exabyte, five of which are worth 37,000 Libraries of Congress. In 2006 alone, the world produced 161 exabytes of digital data, the equivalent of three million times the information contained in all the books ever written.”

The way information, particularly news, is disseminated has been revolutionized, for better and worse, by the internet. Context has disappeared; data usually travels in a chaotic tsunami and arrives “unbundled” and often indecipherable. “These days, news comes at us in a flood of unrelated snippets,” Nordenson writes.

The rest of the article examines a number of different trends affecting the current state of news consumption: the limits of human attention, the role of media in democracy, and the new role of journalism. The piece does end on a relatively optimistic note, however; the final section, titled “Why Journalism Won’t Disappear,” contains this easier-said-than-done prescription: “If news organizations decide to rethink their role and give consumers the context and coherence they want and need in an age of overload, they may just achieve the financial stability they’ve been scrambling for, even as they recapture their public-service mission before it slips away.” 

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