Information overload? Time to fix the filters

Only yesterday I was talking to a client about email overload and the very real challenge it continues to present to individuals, teams and organisations.

And what of new communication technologies – Twitter, for example? Web developer Koobazaur has developed Tweetulator which calculates the time it would take someone to read all of the tweets of the people they were following. According to the article, for Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, it would take him more than 14 hours a day to read all the tweets of the 1,330 people he is following.

Now take a step back and widen the perspective to global internet usage and information creation and you see even more of a challenge.

Back in 2010 Google’s Eric Schmidt estimated that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until  2003. Search ‘information overload’ on Google and you will find graphs showing the exponential increase in data – the graph line starts flat on the left and rises sharply in a curve to the right. You’ll also find tips on how to manage information overload and infographics on how much data we produce on a daily basis such as this one and this one. You’ll also find mention of Moore’s Law which has has been used to describe the speed of growth  of technology.

If we think this is daunting then we need to think again. I recently heard futurist Gerd Leonhard talk about information overload. Unlike other futurists I have heard speak, Leonhard’s thinking is grounded in the present with a view on developments in the coming few years.

In his talk to the Learning Technologies conference in London, he said that we need to think about the fact we are going to grow from two billion people online to five billion – and all connected and mostly on mobile devices.  He went as far as to say that we have yet to unearth nine-tenths of the data available to us.

In the shorter term, we should be thinking about mobile. In the next three years, 60% of internet traffic will be on mobile devices, that compares with 10% currently.

The key issue is not information overload – it is sorting out the filters. Leonhard said we must first get comfortable with the fact there will be so much data around us, we then need to figure out how to filter it.

This something New York University new-media professor Clay Shirky has talked about (see video below).

The challenge now and for the future is how we – as individuals, teams, organisations, networks, communities – filter information and data to help us to work, play and learn. As we generate more data – think the Internet of Things too – so the making sense of it will become more of a pressing need. Data is the new oil, something organisations such as Nike are starting to realize.

Indeed, Gartner’s Peter Sondergarrd has predicted that by 2015 there will need to be 4.4 million IT jobs globally focusing on big data.

Leonhard ended his talk at the conference by looking at 10 future trends. These are grounded in the here and now and so look realistic. The also make the case for more human interfaces for technology and better tools to filter information.

Thankfully, he also suggested that we will all need time away from the information firehose to reflect.

1. Embrace and design for social, local and mobile.
In the next three years 60% of internet traffic will come from mobile devices

Currently 10% of global web traffic comes from mobile. Leonhard said that mobile devices will get cheaper and cheaper, as will connectivity, and this will see huge growth of web activity especially in emerging markets. Imagine having five billion people online, he said.

2. Multi-channel and multi-platform is the new default

This is how content will be delivered, with all content eventually ending up in the cloud and being accessed at the point of need across different devices and channels.

3. Centralised and decentralised and distributed products and services will co-exist

Leonhard gave the example of a school (centralised) an online course provider (decentralised) and a social network such as Yammer (distributed) as ways in which learning will be created and shared. He said all three would co-exist in the future.   

4. It’s an AND world not an either/or world: we need good algorithms and great ‘humarithms’

Users will always be looking for other options to find things and to be able to do things to help them learn – what Leonhard called the ‘And’ option rather than being an either/or decision. Technology will enable this but it is also crucial to consider the role of humans in the process – what he called ‘humarithms’. Technological interfaces have to be built with humans in mind.

5. Embrace next generation interfaces (but don’t be a robot)

Following on from the above point, Leonhard said the real opportunity for tapping data and information will come from creating human interfaces which enable us to easily connect with technology to find, filter and share information.

6. Find, dissect and boot your toxic assumptions

The future will require us to question assumptions and why we do the things the way we do. 

7. If a technology doesn’t help us to be more human, junk it

Coming back to the needs of users as humans, we need to ensure technology helps us behave and act more like humans, not behave and act more like machines. If technology is playing the latter role we should stop using it.

8. Open ‘as much as possible’ is becoming mission critical

The future is open, networked and all organisations will act as small wheels in a much larger connected ecosystem. This will mean being more open with information and data. For example, pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smithkline is putting $1bn of research resource into open source research networks as it believes it will reap far greater rewards from working with networks rather than only developing products in-house. 

9. Consider starting your own ‘collaboration kitchen’

Kraft has created a collaboration kitchen to work with customers on developing new products. Leonhard said this type of approach to collaboration will become more prevalent and increasingly valuable to organisations.

10 Reduce overload with better filters and don’t forget to detox

With the continued growth of data and information on the web, we will need to get more savvy about using tools to help filter and find what we need. Leonhard also recommended time away from the ‘information firehouse’ to be able to reflect.

[These 10 trends first appeared in a conference report I produced for the Voice of Lumesse blog]

Check out Martin’s post on why we use RSS Readers and what the future holds after Google Reader

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