Type the phrases 'information overload' into Google and you'll get nearly four million hits offering endless tips on dealing with the problem, first person accounts of brains fried by a deluge of data, even articles and think pieces declaring us in the midst of "the age of information overload."
Read all that for a little while and you're sure to get the impression that we're all drowning in more information than we know what to do with (though, honestly, you'll probably be interrupted by an incoming email of social media alert before you get very far). But according to a fascinating new study from Pew, all this hype about information overload might amount to much ado about very little.
Aside from a few outliers (and they're not who you think), Americans apparently aren't feeling much troubled by information overload at all. And we're actually even less bothered by the problem than we were ten years ago before the iPhone and Facebook changed all our lives.
More access leads to less overload?
The survey of 1,520 adult Americans found just 20 percent feel overloaded by information. That's down from 27 percent ten years ago. Two-thirds of respondents actually said having access to lots of information makes their lives simpler.
If that surprises you, don't worry. It surprised the researchers too. "We thought it was surprising that the rate was so low and that it has fallen fairly substantially in the last decade," senior researcher John Horrigan commented.
So who are the troubled 20 percent? Not the media insiders and hard-charging professionals you might imagine. Apparently, those folks are pretty much fine being plugged into a fire hose of info all day. A whopping 84 percent of those who owned a computer, a smartphone and a tablet said they enjoyed the amount of information available to them.
Ironically, it's those who are less plugged in who report struggling. Respondents with access to either one or no connected devices were the most likely to complain of information overload. And income matters too. Among those making less than $30,000 a year 47 percent complained of information overload. Among individuals making more than $70,000 a year that rate was 39 percent.
Age also appears to be a big factor. Just 13 percent of those between 18 and 29 years old said they feel overloaded with information. Thirty one percent of those older 65 reported feeling that way. The paradoxical takeaway seems to be that it's those with the most access to information who actually feel least troubled by being a constant stream of updates and info. Those with the least access who feel most overwhelmed.
So what's the takeaway here? As ever, one possible lesson is to look with a critical eye on media obsessions. The issues that the media types who bring you your news struggle with are not always (or maybe often?) the same issues that the actual majority of Americans face. (For confirmation please see the last election).
The other main takeaway might just be that what we think of as the problem is really the solution. We often blame our gadgets for making us feel rushed, scattered and disconnected (not entirely without reason), but while our devices present challenges, this survey suggests that life, and information overload, would be a whole lot worse without these tools. We should appreciate that even as we tweak how we handle them to maximize their potential and minimize their costs to our sanity.
"Even though there are greater flows of information flying around, we think the fact that people have more tools to help them allows them to deal with it," notes Horrigan.