Information Overload continues to be a costly problem but it also appears to be losing some degree of mindshare.
This is not completely unexpected. Many such areas – knowledge management comes to mind – go through phases. At some point, knowledge management was viewed as the savior of the Information Age and at another point, it was seen more as a pariah.
Google Insights, a new tool currently in beta, helped shed some light on where we stand with Information Overload today.
Following a pattern set forth by Thomas Kuhn (albeit for a paradigm shift, not a technology trend) in his groundbreaking work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a revolution occurs in which an anomaly cannot be explained by current theories and the current worldview. This throws the world into a form of crisis and turmoil and an intellectual battle occurs between the adherents of the old paradigm and the proponents of the new one.
Eventually, the new worldview takes hold. Kuhn also maintained that the proponents of the new paradigm cannot be those who were adherents of the old one. They simply had to die out and, once that occurred, a new paradigm was firmly in place and the crisis was over.
(A good example of this is the period of turmoil in science as the Einsteinian Relativistic worldview supplanted the Maxwellian electromagnetic paradigm.)
Is a scientific revolution afoot in the world of Information Overload? That is something that can only be determined in hindsight and not while in the midst of the transition, but there are a few signs that something is changing dramatically.
One way of looking at a worldview on a particular topic today is by analyzing search queries. In particular, Google’s new Insights search analysis tool provides a visual representation of regional and worldwide interest in a particular search term. Google Insights shows the relative number of searches on a query, with the number normalized and scaled to a value from 0-100. It is important to note here that the tool does not provide the exact number of searches, just the relative number.
When I applied Google Insights to the term “Information Overload,” I found something rather unexpected.
Despite the abundance of news articles, books, and technology solutions addressing the problem, the general public’s interest in Information Overload has steadily been in decline since at least 2004 (the first year for which data in Google’s Insights is available). In 2004, the relative search number for Information Overload was 100 on a 0-100 scale. The number of searches declined steadily from 2004 to June of 2006, when the search rate leveled out at 20, where it roughly remains today.
A small side note here; if you look in Google Insights for Information Overload without quotes, the top search term that it finds is actually “overload of information.” When quotes are used (“Information Overload”), the top search becomes “internet information overload” and “definition information overload.”
Globally, Australia is the country most concerned with the problem and leads with the highest search rate at 100, with the U.S. (81), and the U.K. (78) following. Germany (number seven on the list) seems very unconcerned, with a search rate of only 31. Within the U.S., Maryland (search rate of 100), the District of Columbia (90), and Washington State (88) are the top three locales where people have searched on the term Information Overload. However, when broken down by city, New York is by far the largest source of searches on Information Overload with a search rate of 100.
Contrast this with a trend that has recently garnered much attention, “Big Data.” If you use the Insights tool to search for both Information Overload and Big Data (in separate searches), things really start to get interesting.
Big Data had been seemingly absent from search queries (hovering at a relative score of roughly three) until around September 2010. At that point, Big Data jumped from five to 38 by the end of 2011. Big Data’s search rate continues to grow and currently sits at 100 while Information Overload’s rate has remained essentially unchanged since the spring of 2007, hovering between 20 and 30.
While Google’s Insights tool gives us interesting data, it is limited to presenting relative search queries, not exact search numbers, making any direct comparison difficult. What is clear is that Big Data is a term that has rapidly gained mindshare over the last few years, while Information Overload has somewhat fallen out of favor.
Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.