RealTime IT News

Information Overload: Is There a Cure?

PALO ALTO, CALIF. -- Basex chief analyst Jonathan Spira wants to make one thing clear to people who think it's more effective to juggle multiple tasks at once:

"There's no such thing as multitasking," Spira said. "We're switching between tasks, but we [human beings] are not capable of multitasking."

The comments came during a recent panel discussion here, dubbed "Silicon Valley Fights Back Against the (Information) Monster it Created" and sponsored by the Churchill Club, a regional business and technology organization.

Spira's point is more than semantic. The thinking is that when someone stops working on a document to answer the phone or respond to an e-mail, the original task is interrupted -- not handled simultaneously.

More significantly, Spira said his firm's research indicates that the time lost "recovering" from interruptions may be worse than the interruption itself.

For instance, when interrupted by a phone call, e-mail or other distraction, the time needed to get back to where you left off on your original task could take from ten to twenty times longer than the interruption.

Not surprisingly, those lost minutes add up: Basex estimates knowledge workers lose about two hours a day to interruptions, costing the economy hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost productivity.

Part of the problem can be blamed on the very technology that's supposedly making us more productive. Cell phones, instant messages, e-mail and the like have all conspired to create unprecedented, unmanageable levels of information overload.

With one notable exception, the experts gathered for the "Silicon Valley Fights Back Against the (Information) Monster it Created" panel agreed the constant flow of information and interruptions are a serious problem.

But John Poisson, founder and CEO of Tiny Pictures, said he disagreed with the premise that there's a serious information overload problem.

"Saying there's too much information is like saying there's too much food at the buffet," Poisson said. "Just stop and manage it."

Poisson's company is very much geared to the interrupt-driven personality -- or, as he puts it, a younger demographic. Tiny Picture's Radar service enables users to share real-time pictures and video from any camera- and Web-enabled phone.

"This constant stream of shared experience between friends becomes a ongoing group conversation, and a simple and powerful way to stay in touch," according to the company's Web site.

Radar is geared to 16-to-24-year-olds "who are more comfortable switching modalities and tools," Poisson added.

So is this just a generational issue? The panel drew no firm conclusions, though several speakers predicted today's younger generation will likely face some new technology, years from now, to which they'll similarly find it hard to adapt.

For now, it seems it's becoming increasingly difficult for knowledge workers of all ages to pull away from the information buffet.

Another panelist, Tony Wright, is CEO of RescueTime, a Web-based management tool that tracks how you spend time on your computer. Wright said aggregated data from the three months since the tool launched has proved startling.