Making sense of and filtering information overload


I wrote up some brief notes from the Gallery of Modern Art’s recent panel discussion on the future of the 21st century.

Radio National’s Future Tense program subsequently broadcast the discussion and provided a full transcript for those who would like to see more of the content.

One of the many interesting topics of discussion was dealing with information overload. This is an issue that often comes up as a futurist, as people wonder how you keep across everything that’s happening. I’ll write in more detail on this later, but for now here is the transcript from the panel (somewhat mangled from the original) including comments from myself and Tim Longhurst. Some of the key points were:

* The new generation of web tools are enabling us to collaborate to filter massive information overload
* Creating visual frameworks can be a powerful way of making sense of information
* The role of futurists is pattern recognition
* Selective filtering to reinforce our biases is not new
* Most of us will experience more diverse views than before the web

Antony Funnell: Ross Dawson, I’ve given up looking at the technology section in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald because I just can’t keep pace with it – there just seems to be so much change going on. As a futurist, I just wonder how difficult it is to actually keep ahead of all that, to be involved in trying to forecast trends for business or organisations and be on the money, not feel like you’ve suddenly fallen behind the curve.

Ross Dawson: There is an order of 100 times more digital information today than there was 10 years ago. I wrote an article in 1997 about information overload, and obviously you’ve got quite a bit more now. Broadly I see that the whole concept of Web 2.0 was mass participation creating value for everyone, and a large part of that is filtering. A lot of what is happening in the social web has enabled us to filter and find information far better than before. So yes, we have infinite information, we have far better tools to filter that through the social aggregation tools such as Techmeme and Topsy and a wide variety of other tools which actually filter the information. But ultimately it’s cognitive, it is about our brains and our ability to take information on.

So my approach is to do visual frameworks, which help me to make sense of what’s out there and put the pieces together. These are skills we all need, how do we make sense of, rather than trying to be across, more information. These are skills which we need in schools, the skills that we need to develop as individuals. We will never be across all the information, but if we have a framework to put that in, then combined with the tools of the web and of collaborative filtering, as I discussed in my book Living Networks, collaborative filtering is the heart of the future. We are collaborating to filter information overload, and from that we’re able to make some sense.

Antony Funnell: Tim Longhurst, what’s your view on them? Is filtering going to be, or learning how to filter correctly, the vast amount of information that comes to us, is that going to be as important for say this next decade as just understanding the sheer quantity of data was for this past decade?

Tim Longhurst: Yes. I think it’s about pattern recognition. You can’t possibly read every article but you can start to identify signals in the noise. Our ability as humans and our ability collectively as organisations and communities, our ability to understand where our choices might take us, take a step back and consider those consequences and make active choices about the future, is really important. So let’s take your technological example, reading The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age every day, it would be overwhelming.

Focusing on tech, there are certain megatrends that are happening in that area. So for example, we’ve seen processing capacity increase over the years, storage capacities increasing substantially, battery life is increasing, so basically what we can say is there’s been some major trends, drivers for change, that are allowing for example, smartphones to exist. And so you don’t necessarily need to understand every smartphone to conceptualise the role of a smartphone. And so definitely having filters, being able to aggregate information, and having trusted sources, has become a part of how we can – I mean no-one’s read the internet five times.

Antony Funnell: There is though, a body of thought that’s starting to develop, that suggests that one of the outcomes of that filtering is that we’re locking ourselves away, that idea of homophily, that birds of a feather flock together, that there’s just so much stuff out there that we’re retreating into our shells, and we’re just really engaging online, as we would in the real world, with people that we trust and that we know. Is that a real phenomenon do you think?

Tim Longhurst: Absolutely, Jordan Louviere at the University of Technology Sydney, I know Ross wants to jump in so I’ll keep this brief, described as ‘availability bias’. We’re biased by the information that’s immediately available to us. So if we’re logging on to Facebook or Twitter, and remember we ourselves selected those people that we’ve decided to associate with in those networks, and so the only people whose political ideas and philosophies we’re being exposed to are the people that we already choose to associate with. Then we may be missing out and in fact we may be making the chasm or the divide between different political views even more acute.

Antony Funnell: And Ross, the companies are doing this for us as well, aren’t they? I mean they’re looking at what we like and they’re helping us to narrow our focus?

Ross Dawson: Yes, this is not a new phenomenon. For ages we’ve bought newspapers that reflect our political views, in Australia we haven’t tended to have as politically aligned newspapers and media outlets as we do in some other countries, but historically, in the 17th century we read the pamphlets which supported our political views, or we read The Sun in the UK if that’s aligned with our views. That’s all you read, that’s all the news you had for the day. So I think that people can lock themselves in and say, ‘I’m only going to look at this sector of things’, but we have far more opportunity to stumble across other things, and this idea of the serendipity dial, where we can choose to have a lot of accidents and stumbling across things that we’re not specifically looking for. Or we can turn that down to say ‘No, I’m only going to want to look at things which I know I’m going to like.’ Some people are choosing to go down that path, but I think through the information filtering we have, we probably have more diverse information than we did.