How I Info-overloaded Myself by Chairing an Information Overload Conference

Perhaps the most frequent question I heard yesterday at the Information Overload Research Group’s First Annual Conference (which I chaired) was, “why are you so passionate about the problem of information overload?”

When I was doing a research project in grammar school, I learnt about the Library of Alexandria.  The library was charged with collecting all of the world’s knowledge, the first effort of its kind, and became a home to scholars from around the world.  It also had one of the most original acquisition policies, namely it (possibly apocryphally) confiscated every book that came across its borders (Alexandria had a man-made port and was an early international trading hub) and copied each one, usually returning the copy, not the original, to its owner.

This (and, subsequently, the New York Public Library, which I frequented during another research project) made quite an impression on me.  But I also realized how much information was out there.  When I started working at my father’s company, Spiratone, helping select and deploy office automation systems, I began to see how information flowed throughout an organization, or sometimes how it didn’t flow.

The time I spent there created an indelible impression of how technology could sometimes work in harmony with business – and sometimes not.

It was in the early 1990s when I began to realize that the spread of then-new technologies within the enterprise, such as e-mail, were creating as many problems as they were solving.

CNBC interviewed me on productivity issues back in 1993.  The reporter, Bob Pisante, opened the segment by saying “It’s not just meetings that are taking up a ton of, time, there’s also a problem with mail.  And in this day and age, mail means e-mail.  You think you’re busy?  Jonathan Spira can get 150 e-mails a day.”

So now that I’ve given you this bit of background, fast forward to this past Monday, when I was in a meeting at the Penn Club trying to prepare for the IORG conference.  I was receiving so many “inputs” from so many people (both in the meeting and on-line relating to the meeting) that I found myself unable to compose a simple paragraph for a news release.

Preparation for the information overload conference had simply overloaded me to a point I hadn’t yet reached before.

I stopped what I was doing, took a meditative stroll through some empty rooms at the Penn Club, and returned to the task at hand about half an hour later.  Paragraph complete, I was ready to move onto other matters.

Next week we’ll present a full overview of the event with links to content from the conference.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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