Information overload

Alastair Mabbott bombards his brain with details of a new epidemic. which, according to the author Richard Saul Wurman. is an inevitable by-product of the information explosion.

As ifwe didn‘t have enough on our plates with repetitive strain injury. sick building syndrome. the danger of VDUs and the ever-present. nagging problem ofstress. another buzzword has been added to our lexicon: information anxiety. Just what we needed something else to get worked up about.

Richard Saul Wurman. an architect. cartographer. graphic designer and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. has written a manual with the intention of helping people to find the right entrances to and pathways through the knowledge maze. As creative director ofAccess Press Ltd and The Understanding Business. he has redesigned Pacific Bell‘s telephone directories and put his stamp on a series of guidebooks. making them as intelligible and user-friendly as possible. It would be no surprise to find out that he was also a member of the Plain English Society.

‘We are like a thirsty person who has been condemned to use a thimble to drink from a fire hydrant.‘ writes Wurman. who contends that

the morass of facts which. these


days. doubles every four to five years, is an explosion ofdata rather than information information being something that leads to understanding and that. to continue his watery simile. we are drowning in it without a straw to clutch.

Those souls who. like me. would never dream ofcrossing a bookshop to browse through the ‘business management‘ shelves might find it worth their while. Even without knowing its precise definition. you have probably experienced a shiver of recognition at the term ‘information anxiety". Working in journalism. I‘m involved with amassing data. mulling it over and spewing it out. But with limited time on my hands. how do I know what the important information is and in what direction to go to get it‘.’ Will I understand it‘.‘ And supposing I do. what do I do with it then‘.’

Wurman isolates four stages where information anxiety arises: not understanding information: feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information to be understood: not knowing if certain information exists: and knowing where to find it but not having access. But do people whose work involves processing large amounts of information feel that this has anything to do with them'.’

Mark Connolly, computer consultant:

‘I think there‘s a certain amount of truth in that. I suppose that‘s more in terms of the systems we provide to our users. We provide a system and they have to make sense of it. People get their own pathways that they

follow and they‘re reluctant to stray from them. It does have an effect on my job. You keep on having to learn new languages every couple ofyears. A lot ofpeople think they should be at home on their PCs. learning new things. What happens ifyou don‘t is that you become a dinosaur. you get stuck in the same job.‘

Craig Stephenson, political researcher at Conservative Central Office:

‘I don‘t think that has particular relevance to myjob. Our department deals with policy research. and we certainly find that the wider the source ofinformation the better. Far from being in any way anxiety-causing, it‘s anxiety- decreasing. ifyou like. Ifindividuals want to search through information and reach conclusions. then fine. We don‘t deal with data from a particularly wide range ofsources. only with Conservative Party policy. government policy. Those sources are limited.‘

Bill Whitetord, editor on ‘Good Morning Scotland’, Radio Scotland:

‘We have a lot to trawl through in terms of news stories. we‘ve a lot of sifting to do. Having said that. I don‘t think the task doubles every four to five years. I think the number ofstories that are filed stays much the same. At the moment it‘s a bit different. because there‘s an enormous welter of material coming out of the Gulf. but whether that actually causes any symptoms I couldn‘t say. It may make things slightly more frustrating. to weed out the wheat from the chaff. but part of our job is to ignore the ones which we need to know nothing about.



After a while. you simply no longer see the ones that you‘re not looking for. . . . I think a lot ofjournalists get into it by being basically curious. I think it‘s significant that Trivial Pursuit was invented by journalists. In our own particular sphere. which is current affairs, you‘ll find that people go home and watch every news bulletin.‘ John Orr, Reader at Edinburgh University, teaching Sociology and Film Studies: ‘Academics get hung up on particular things. and there are occasions where the means outweigh the goals. I think that often happens to people who work with computer and video technology. Personally. I think I‘m a pragmatist. The things I‘ve taken on are things I‘ve completed. I‘m selective and I‘m prepared to cynically neglect other things ifthey‘re not going to lead to anything. I suspect. though, that that‘s not standard academic practice that a lot ofpeople get bogged down. The public expression of being aufait with developments is part ofacademic culture. At worst, that can be superficial and bureaucratic; at best. it provides immunity from the market place. The protective role of universities is

S being weakened by government : policy. so academics will be forced

on to the market place. Information

i anxiety will increase and less will be

done while more is. falsely. seen to


In formation A ntiely by Richard Saul Wurman is published by Pan books a! £12. 99.

The List 25 January 7 February 199l 71