Dealing with Information Overload – Fixing Filter Failure

Per Clay Shirky (ca. 2009, sorry, I’ve apparently been asleep) since the invention of the printing press, it has been the publisher’s job to decide what to print. This was decided by economic forces around the upfront cost of printing vs. the customer demand for a specific title (or a specific collection of of content).

By lowering the cost of publishing, the internet has largely removed the economic logic of publishers filtering for content.

The cost of publishing is now so low that publishers’ economic logic has changed to “publish anything and everything and see what hits”, thus the “going viral” phenomenon. In this sense, many publishers have abandoned their role of filtering for quality content. Therefore, filtering is now the problem of the individual information consumer and automated spam filters. However, even with automated filters, there is no “set it and forget it”.

As information consumers, we should be assuming that information production will continue to increase and the delivery systems for information will continue to get harder to ignore. This continuing increase of information is simply a result of “post-Gutenberg economics”. We need to get used to it and guard against it.

Therefore, according to Shirky, when we feel overload, we don’t need to ask “What changed about the amount of information?”, but “Which filter broke?” Then we are in the right mindset to diagnose our problem. We also need to get comfortable that we will need to continue to invent new kinds of filters as new delivery systems come along.

As always, Shirky is a bright guy.

The first idea to note is that a filter is, by nature, a defensive device. A filter doesn’t attack the problem directly, but keeps the problem from getting to us. The best defenses are multi-layered, so our filters must be, as well. So I stopped thinking in terms of one ‘best way’ to manage information. I must have multiple filters for different apps and for different situations.

Secondly, thinking in terms of “filter failure” has allowed me to have a more actionable mindset with regard to managing my incoming information. As a concluding note, I’ll mention how important such an actionable mindset is.

When we face a problem, we have a choice between two basic responses:

  • That’s just the way it is.
  • What can I do to fix it?

The first response tends to put us in a victim mentality, leaving us relatively helpless and/or frustrated about “the situation”.

The second response puts us in an action-oriented mindset. How we phrase our self-talk around the issue can have a significant impact on which choice we make.

In my experience, if I can find an action to take, even a small one, then I am less likely to fall into the first choice and a victim mentality. There is a big mental difference between being a “victim” of “information overload” and being an “engineer” who needs to “build another filter”. This is why I think the broken filter metaphor is useful.

So go and engineer yourself another filter and plan to keep on building better filters, at least once in a while, for the foreseeable future.