Can too much information be a bad thing?

People complain about the stress of limited time, the anxiety around multitasking, and while many things compete for our attention, we find it much more difficult to concentrate and focus on tasks at hand. It is as if there is a growing number of people suffering from a “social attention deficit disorder.”

Time management specialists report that following the Second World War, up to the 1980s, the typical office worker earned a full day’s pay for 60 per cent of the effort (4.8 hours). The rest of the time was spent pursuing fantasies, making personal phone calls, taking coffee breaks, visiting the restrooms and doing crossword puzzles.

While there is still much office wastage such as web-surfing and personal emails, time on Facebook, etc., today’s office worker faces more to do at work than those in earlier days. The author of Macroeconomics, Robert Gordon, reports that current productivity is ten times what it was at the end of the 19th century.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have concluded that if the total mass of information annually generated in our world were parceled out to every person on Earth, each person could be given a personal library of 250 books.

The Library of Congress catalogues 7,000 new titles each day, more than 2,000 new websites go online each day and a minimum of 2,000 books are published worldwide each day.

All of this information leads to “information overload” and takes it toll on us each day.

Having too much information can lead to a “paralysis of analysis,” making it much more difficult to find the right solutions or make the best decisions.

Not only do we suffer from information overload, but the complexity of such a database grows. For example, there are roughly 16 varieties of Colgate toothpaste, dozens of Pantene hair care treatments and 110 varieties of Hallmark greeting cards to choose from. Your local supermarket carries 50,000 to 60,000 items crammed on their shelves, twice as many items as one could find a mere decade ago.

And we cannot dawdle in the aisles of box-stores because minutes, even seconds do count. Money is not the currency of the day, rather it is time. And we have to speed through our days. There is the rub: study data suggest that with such immediate and urgent demands, our creativity, our spontaneity and the many joys of living diminish.

As victims of the “social attention deficit disorder” we begin more tasks than we can finish, we bore more easily, seek thrills more readily and take more risks, some of which are simply foolish.

And all of these pathologies are enhanced by our high-speed, highly kinetic, information-saturated society. In 1965, the typical news byte lasted 45 seconds; this year it has dropped to eight seconds. While the typical TV advertisement was 53 seconds in 1965, it is has now dropped to 25 seconds. Indeed, we are swirled around in a dizzying, accelerating vortex.

What such a frantic pace betrays is widespread discomfort with quiet reflection and solitude. And increasingly, this discomfort tolerates only shorter and shorter attention spans.

To withdraw into one’s own mind, to stop and reflect, all of this is now treated as an alien terrain. With the worldwide web and compulsively interactive media pervading our lives, a social attention deficit disorder is on the rise.

If we would accomplish something large as well as significant, it will require a retreat to a land we rarely go — to that place and frame of mind where the best our thoughts can be gently sifted through and emerge fine-grained.

Difficult though it may be, when we finally value quiet reflection over frantic activity, the breadth and scope of what we can do will improve remarkably.

Silence in solitude is indeed 24-karat gold, but only if we learn to respect it and recognize it as gifts urgently needed today. The rewards are truly great when solitude is sought and valued.

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