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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Too Much Information or a Skills Gap

Wesley Fryer discusses How are you dealing with TMI? (Too Much Information)  (found via Stephen Downes).  Wesley points us to a post by Kevin Washburn “TMI! Information Overload and Learning.” where Kevin points out:

TMI floods the brain with data, preventing comprehension and elaboration, and thus, preventing learning. Jonah Lehrer suggests the danger of too much information is “it can actually interfere with understanding.” Why? Because the brain has a do-it-yourself attitude toward learning.

Wes also asks us to consider:

 current visual list of education applications from the website “All My Favs.” I’m overwhelmed just looking at these choices!

All My Faves | Education


This is similar to the list of Web 2.0 tools that I often use in my presentations.


All of these represent potential metacognitive tools and methods.  Life was simple 25 years ago.  We knew how to use the card catalog, journal indices, microfiche readers.  We had quarters in our pocket for the Xerox machine.  We knew how to use Interlibrary Loan.  We knew how to take notes.

It's a lot more complicated these days.

And I think that we need to recognize that it's more than the "Too Much Information" aspect of the issue.  It's really that we need to adapt to new methods and tools.  It's a big skills, knowledge, performance gap – see Work Skills Keeping Up.  And I personally believe that it's a big mistake to Not Prepare Workers for Web 2.0.  It's why I created Work Literacy about a year ago.

Wes has some specific suggestions in his post for how to deal with TMI.

I try to address this through posts such as:

I look forward to collaborating on this very important topic.


Bill said...

Two good books on the subject of cognitive load theory:

1) Working Memory, Thought, and Action by Alan Baddeley
2) The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory by Torkel Klingberg

Steve Flowers said...

Alan Levine posted an opposing view at

I have to say that I agree with Alan in most respects.

But I also think we're talking about different things. As a novice performer, if I need to learn something focused (a specific skill) certainly I want nothing but the relevant / simple explanation. But, as a learner, if that was the only information available then my learning journey and growth would be limited by TLL (Too Little Information).

As an expert performer I have the mental framework to deal with and filter information. I'll strategically use technology and trusted sources to connect with the right information in that haystack. TMI doesn't apply in this case, in my opinion.

Tony Karrer said...

Bill - thanks for the pointers to the books.

Steve - Great post from Alan Levine - The Myth of TMI.

"It’s not that we have Too Much Information, it’s that we are using old ways of thinking to deal with new forms of information."

That's definitely aligns with what I'm talking about as well. In fact, he talks about a skills gap as well.

I do think that filtering mechanisms - especially search - need to improve to help us with this.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Right on Tony!

And there's more to come! Do we really need 1000 ways to do the same thing?

Perhaps we need some frugality. We may have to resort to that yet.

Catchya later

Tony Karrer said...

Ken - that's an interesting question. I used to think that it was better to standardize practice - have relatively fewer options. And as a consumer, I like when it's clear what the choice should be. However, what I've read on topics like personal information management suggest that its highly personal. Different approaches work well for different people.

On the information front, I think the fact that the same bits of information, but aimed in different context have important differences suggest that multiple sources might be a good thing.

So, I'm not so sure about the goal of reducing choice.

Paul Angileri said...

One complicating factor to this I think is the tendency for people to adopt the (or on ofthe) first new tool(s) they use and stay. People naturally gravitate toward the most common, most popular, or most implemented thing, especially (sometimes obviously) if there is a system in place promoting the use of tool A over all others. With so much out there, I think that we are in a similar period with the internet that we were in economically in the larger part of the 20th century. Decades ago we had all kinds of different car makers, more fast food companies than we have now, more of everything. Over time the top 5 or 10 of many industries rose to dominant positions in their respective markets. I think the same will eventually happen with online tools.

Without having read Levine's post yet, the argument supporting TMI could also have been made when computers didn't exist, I think. Libraries have for centuries been filled with more than any one human could realistically consume in a lifetime. The modern age is little different I would argue. We have improved the level of access by creating technologies that reduce time and effort, and bring the information to the person seeking it. But the same load issue remains because the human brain hasn't evolve to compensate in this area. But this has always been the case. We now have tools that allow us to consume more, but not necessarily the inherent capacity to do so. I can listen to a podcast on one subject while reading a news story on another, as difficult as it can be to keep the two separated while doing it.

I am not sure loading is the issue, as it will always be so to the point that it becomes one of those things one simply deals with because it is not, at least at present, surmountable. Individuals can easily limit the quantity of information coming into them. I am more worried of the quality of the information, which makes selection and the skills for discerning that priority over others.

But I am not firm in my stance, and appreciate any opposing insights. I'll have to read Levine's piece.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

And thanks for this. I agree with you that 'multiple sources' is a good thing.

But as Paul A alludes to, do we really need the huge variety that we've seen in the past? I'd say that 10 - 20 ways would be a step in the direction I'm leaning towards here. Hence my comment about 1000 ways to do the same thing.

It is too easy to be extreme and go polar. I'm not advocating going extreme on this. But the 1000 ways to do things is what I'd call a bit polar. Let's go for balance - do you sense my tilt?

Catchya later

rani said...

TMI is also related speed -- too much happening in a given amount of time. As Alan Levine points out (thanks for the pointer Steve) the potential for TMI has always been around, though information may not have been so readily available.

What takes time to develop in this age of blogs, twitter, facebook, news feeds -- is your information strategy and finding various tools help you shape your strategy.

My GoogleReader is put into folders --I have a different strategy for every folder I go into (what I read for in my Games folder is different from what I read in my eLearn folder). There is the "mental framework to deal with and filter information". I try read consistently and when I have the energy. If it drains your energy to read blog posts, then don't.

Which brings up another point -- when we are passionate about something, when we have motivation and read in anticipation, the notion of too much information falls away and we read with joy instead of resignation and fear.

Tony Karrer said...

Great comments. The issue around choice is an interesting one. In many ways, I like it when some aspects are fixed. It makes a lot of variables go away. But I'm not sure we can count on that as much anymore with the incredible speed of innovation and the pace of change.

On the point of information overload, it makes me think about a discussion I often use in presentations. If you put a person from the 18th century down in the 1970s, they would likely be overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them - and the fact that so much base information has changed - it would feel daunting. Is this now happening in a matter of years rather than centuries. If we stagnate on a topic - are we overwhelmed?

Scott Hewitt said...

When you see the websites/apps graphically represented you being to appreciate the scale of the information that we are trying to make best use of. I've been wondering for some time if their is a hierarchy of web2.0 apps linked to our own needs and how this changes depending on tech trends and circumstance.

Interestingly in the 4 day week book, Timothy Ferris uses friends and the social web to sort and order information for him!

Tony Karrer said...

Scott - I agree on the fact that these pictures help us understand the complexity that we face.

I think organizers of all the different things going on out there are incredibly useful - but it's hopeless to try to do it more than along a single organizational strategy at a time. It's just way too complex and messy.

And, great point about using people to help make sense of things. That's a big part (possibly the biggest) of the change that's gone on.