Death by information overload

Last week there was a Dutch initiative to have a “Email-less Friday”. The aim was to communicate directly to people or by phone and not via that non-personal, sometimes confusing but always omnipresent electronic communication format that swaps us every day. Just a funny news item or are we really being strangled by information overload?

When I started to use email systems, I guess somewhere at the end of the 80‘s, with not even the idea that mobile communication would get a commodity, life was simple:

  • Email was strictly a business thing within business hours
  • It helped to bridge time zones and the exchange of files with colleagues abroad
  • Five mails per day did make you already an important person
  • Spam was unheard of
  • One would start and shutdown the system mornings, after lunch and before going home

Then came VPN, Outlook, aliases, private mailboxes for everybody in the family (including the dog). There was a brief moment of rest during holidays but the Smartphone killed that too. OK, I admit that it is convenient that I can read my mail via almost any device, wherever, whenever. But I never read those “funny” pictures, PowerPoint‘s, YouTube-links or jokes anymore and I even stopped reading emails where I was just one of the 20 CC‘ed persons. In some white collar environment studies show that on average an employee will need over 3 hours per day to handle email traffic. That leaves not much time to work…

If email were the only thing. One has to read news and messages from the social networks, inform the community that I will “be on a trip to Kopenhagen in 3 weeks” and of course one has to Twitter that “I‘m leaving for the game now” to at least half the world. Luckily I‘m not being “esemessed” that much but then again I invite you to read this blog.

After we are hooked, comes the cold turkey, as shown last week as one of our prime mobile providers had an unusual complete crash of their network for most of a day. Apart from the (business) nuisance this created, two interesting observations:

  • Some public transport did not run anymore because the communication between drivers and dispatch was not possible and also the traffic control systems were down.
  • Interviewed teenagers were in a state of shock because they couldn‘t SMS: “It felt like my phone had died”.

The first means that we can‘t rely completely on a system and in some cases have to invest in a fall-back. The second makes me worry if future generations still can communicate as humans.

I‘m not advocating to go back to the days of snail-mail. Just keep in mind that information is only information if the receiver sees it as information. Otherwise it is spam or just data.

If we add to this that it is more polite and probably more effective to answer a serious message by phone or coffee corner talk than not to answer at all because we don‘t have the time, we will at least halve the size of our incoming “information”.

As always, your comments are welcomed.

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