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Clay Shirky was wrong

by EphraimJF on September 16th, 2011

It is about information overload.

The problem isn’t information overload. It’s filter failure.

-Clay Shirky

Metaphor: The oil filter in my car can fail because it’s there. It already exists, has a clear purpose and known way of operating.

But the “filter failure” Clay Shirky refers to isn’t the same. We’ve developed information overload over the last several decades, but we simply don’t have the filters needed to adequately deal with it. Something that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been tested can’t fail.

My point isn’t so much about Clay Shirky. He’s super smart.

I’m really saying that we need to stop blaming “filter failure” when information overload really is a problem. Today I have email accounts with 4 different email providers. I’m getting information through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Google Alerts, Yammer groups I’m a member of, etc. All of this information is actually highly filtered. I’ve chosen the people I follow, the groups I’m a member of and the words that are triggering my alerts. It’s all aimed at my area of professional interest. Yet I still don’t read a tenth of the good stuff out there on the topics I’m interested in.

The number of items under the “to_read” tag in my Delicious bookmarks grows every day. It never shrinks. My “To Read” Circle in Google+ is filling up with old stories I haven’t gotten around to yet and that are probably already irrelevant.

I’m highly judicious about who I follow on Twitter, yet my Twitter stream is wickedly busy.

The reality of modern life is that we have tons of information coming at us from every possible direction. When we blame “filter failure” we do detriment to our own human nature. We’re not designed to sit calmly under a constant waterfall of information on the computer, TV and smart phones and rapidly filter out all the crap that’s low quality or off topic. We’re not designed to work within companies with tens of thousands of employees and truly understand the entire business.

We were designed to hunt deer-like creatures in the Savanah, to roam the mountains and boat down rivers. We were designed to interact with other human beings, adapt to complex ecosystems, sing, dance, run and play music.

Information overload is a real thing. The filters haven’t failed so much as they never existed in the first place. Good filters are part of our ongoing adaptation to information overload.

So take it easy on me for sometimes getting buried beneath email, to-do lists and reading lists. Take it easy on yourself for missing out on lots of great information and conversations. We need to collectively take it easy on ourselves for being overwhelmed by the constant flood of information.

It’s not just filter failure.

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  • http://engagedlearning.net Kevin D. Jones

    I appreciate the view, but I still have to agree with Clay.  I feel like your position is, “I jumped into a room full of snakes.  The problem isn’t that I don’t have a good snake repellent (which doesn’t exist) but that there are so many snakes!

    My solution: Don’t jump in there in the first place.  In other words, part of the filter failure is that you have chosen to join, monitor and participate with so many email addresses and networks.  The filter comes not only when you are in there, but also in which ones you have chosen to join.

    I have no doubt there are many you have not joined on purpose – but that is part of the filtering.  It is hard to not be a part of a crowd you know is having a party, but that is a large part of the filter.

    In the end, don’t only rely on technology to filter – you be the filter.

  • Trisha Liu

    Gosh, I agree with both Ephraim and Kevin. Kevin, I feel like I could have written your comment. The number of folks I follow on Twitter and Google+ is laughably low, I’m not active on Quora, and I delete all my LinkedIn group digest emails. :) I’m doing my best to join/follow only those things I want to spend time with.

    And yet, I love Ephraim’s statement, ‘We are not designed to calmly sit under a constant waterfall of information’ from our devices and networks. Yes! We just aren’t!

    So, I am reminded of something Rachel Happe said, about humans not being able to keep up with the pace of technology and information, and how this challenge makes relationship and connection even more critical than ever. Which leads me back to ‘Who do I REALLY want to spend time with?’

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  • http://www.thoughtfarmer.com Chris McGrath

    Great post Ephraim, and it reminds me of a Nicholas Carr post from earlier this year (did you miss it? I can’t believe you missed it. aren’t you following him? ;-)): http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2011/03/situational_ove.php.

    Nick Carr makes the argument that our filters are better than ever. In fact, our filters are so good that they are *causing* the problem: they are delivering to us a firehose of targeted, specific, relevant information. Carr ends: “When the amount of information available to be filtered is effectively
    unlimited, as is the case on the Net, then every improvement in the
    quality of filters will make information overload worse.”

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  • http://twitter.com/lCSShaw LCS

    Well done IBF’er – love the post. I would agree with Nick Carr that our filters are better than ever, the hardest part is figuring out what matters and what doesn’t – bring in the ‘community manager’…source, filter, moderate, source, filter, moderate…. I quite enjoy the deluge it makes me feel important. Onwards and upwards :)

  • Amarr

    If fault is to be found with Shirky, as well as almost all other internet pundits on information overload, it is in their premises, not their conclusions. Almost all hold the implicit assumption that humans are sensitive to information as static facts. However, if informed by the most recent findings from affective neuroscience on human decision making, this position cannot be true. 

    Specifically, Shirky (and nearly all of his peers) hold to positions that are not neurally realistic, and would have to abandon much of their opinions (and specifically the reality of information overload) if they were informed by the recent findings in affective neuroscience on how human minds actually process and choose information. Surprisingly, this argument can be made quite simply, and is made (link below) using an allegory of the Boston Red Sox pennant run over the years.

    http://mezmer.blogspot.com/2012/02/searching-for-red-stockings-myth-of.html

    (Alas, my argument at three pages is a bit long for a comments section, but perhaps not as a link.)

    A. J. Marr

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