Among the things I’ve been brooding over lately is the notion of information overload… It’s one of those tricky concepts that most people intuitively understand on some sort of common sense level, and it’s widely acknowledged to be a defining characteristic of contemporary life in the industrialised world. Yet when you pay attention to how the term is used, it becomes clear how often it sits there as a largely unexamined condition, deployed to serve all manner of fuzzy observations and contradictory assertions.
A story which made the rounds yesterday was headlined ‘Infomania’ worse than marijuana (does this mean that over at Erowid they might start forums for people who think Infomania is even cooler than marijuana?). From the HP (sponsoring organization) press release:
Far from making workers more productive, the findings of a new scientific experiment reveal that those who “over juggle” and who constantly disrupt meetings and important tasks to read and respond to messages, significantly reduce their IQ. In a series of tests carried out by Dr Glenn Wilson, Reader in Personality at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, an average worker’s functioning IQ falls ten points when distracted by ringing telephones and incoming emails. This drop in IQ is more than double the four point drop seen following studies on the impact of smoking marijuana 2 . Similarly, research on sleep deprivation suggests that an IQ drop of ten points is equal to missing an entire night of sleep 3 . This IQ drop was even more significant in men who took part in the tests.
Oh, where to begin…
I’ll acknowledge that on a personal, wholly uninformed personal level, it does not seem unreasonable to assert that being bombarded by information (and the expectation of contributing to the churn) might distract and confuse a human being. But the way this effect is described indicates a quantitative reductionism almost stunning in its simplicity. Overwork, sleep deprivation and smoking bong hits are radically different subjective experiences (or so I have read), whatever the effects on productivity.
And as Gardner Campbell observes, “suddenly IQ seems a noncontroversial measure of performance.” He also links to this fine breakdown of the story by Mark Liberman, which offers some useful skepticism (noting that it’s possible that “nothing ever will be published — this is a privately commissioned study described in a press release, with some quotes from the author in the resulting popular-press articles”) and background on the lead researcher:
I certainly don’t expect newspaper stories to be like scientific journal articles, but couldn’t they give us one or two sentences about how the IQ study was actually carried out? I’m not just being a fuss-budget here. Think about it. Were the subjects people whose work and social lives normally require email? If so, were they in effect being compared in normal life and on vacation? Or if they were not normally users of email, were they being tested while trying to master a new set of skills such as typing and computer use? If the study was done in a lab setting with concocted emails to read and answer, what was the control activity? Or were subjects simply tested before and after a day of intensive email interaction? Was it even a within-subjects design, with the same subjects tested with and without email and similar distractions, or did the study compare the effects of a day at work on subjects who used email and text messaging vs. subjects who didn’t? Without answers to questions like these, I’m not convinced that such a study necessarily tested the things attributed to it at all. (And some answers might well convince me that the study definitely didn’t test what is claimed for it.)
The author of the IQ portion of the study is this Glenn Wilson, said to be an expert in "Personality; sexual behaviour; male-female differences; social behaviour; performing arts psychology; fame and celebrity". He’s previously written an apparently controversial popular book called The Great Sex Divide; another apparently controversial book called The Psychology of Conservatism; found (surprisingly large if true) differences in startle responses based on sex and sexual orientation; examined the role of hormones in the physiology of "love junkies"; and studied the psychological benefits of bubble baths.
Most of the mainstream media reports (Liberman links to a pile of them) simply repeat the prepackaged story more or less verbatim. Among the stenographers is the vaunted Chronicle of Higher Educations reasonable digital-drawn facsimile of a weblog. I’ve been detecting a significant uptick of gum-flapping and harumph-harumphing from major media outlets about the immaturity and unreliability of weblogging lately. This particular instance illustrates quite clearly how dramatically and rapidly the news game is changing, and not in favour of large centralized media behemoths, whose economic prerogatives increasingly preclude basic analysis of pre-fabricated newslike substances.
I’ve signed up for a PubSub feed on “information overload” — which, to bring the info-feedback loop into a full screaming iterative frenzy, today brings me a link from my friend Wendy Farmer’s prodigious new blog, a post in which she links back to me.