The Right Stuff

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan. 1997

Wherever I go these days, people moan about information overload. They complain about how many email messages they get per day, about how often their pagers go off, about the impossibility of finding anything on the Web, and about how they donít have time for anything anymore.

Then I go to these other meetings where people worry about achieving universal access to information. Whenever Internet is the subject of discussion, someone will bring up the issue of the "have-nots." Everyone will shake their heads in agreement, and sigh at the sadness of the reality that a great portion of the world lacks proper access to information. How, they ask, can the gap between "haves" and "have-nots" be bridged?

Somehow I never put these two perspectives into juxtaposition, but it is curious, isnít it? On the one hand, people complain about their own information overload, while on the other hand, they decry the fact that more of the world canít share that problem. Everyone should be inundated with email, agitated by pagers, and swamped by the Web. Just like them.

So it is possible to have too much information, and it is also possible to have too little information. This draws me to the inevitable and interesting conclusion that there is a right amount of information somewhere in the middle. Clearly this is an important finding, requiring further research to quantify and elucidate. The aim should be to enable an individual to acquire and maintain their personal information at a certain pre-determined level, where they are neither in a state of information overload or of information underload.

Of course, the right amount might not actually be achievable. It might be only a theoretical construct that in reality is unstable, like a sub-atomic particle that can only exist for nanoseconds, in which the information state will immediately decay into one of the stable overload or underload states. Based on my own cursory examination, where I sample people on airplanes and subways, I postulate that the world is entirely divided into the two disparate populations -- people with too much, and people with too little. No one displays that little smug smile of self-satisfaction indicating complete mastery of their information environment.

Even though no human being may exhibit this correct information state, having just the right stuff in an information sense, the observation that this state must exist is the essential finding. Thus, as in the search for the quark, the ideal information state needs to be isolated in laboratory conditions.

What, for example, is the right number of email messages that a person should get in a day? I often hear people complain about getting a hundred to two hundred messages a day. I do notice, however, that as they cite these numbers, they observe with feigned indifference my reaction. I get the feeling that the number is adaptively determined. I see them wondering if, say, 150 would be sufficient to impress me with their own importance, or whether they should try for a higher number, trading off the believability of their claim.

I know a lot of people who get zero email messages a day, since they either donít have email, or they do and no one knows their address. Arbitrarily, I pronounce this as too few. I know other people who get hundreds. This, in my opinion, is too many. To get at the right number, I did a very scientific survey of 25 high-tech associates. "What is the right number of email messages per day that you want to get?" I asked. Being engineers and computer scientists, they immediately tried to qualify the question, often suggesting that they wanted only to get the important ones, not the junk mail. "Just give me a number," I replied with a certain lack of patience.

Iím sure you will be enlightened to hear that the right number of daily email messages is 28.68. (Notice the precision in this figure.) Check the number of your own messages today. Are you in overload or underload?

I think it is curious that my sample was rather bimodal. The standard deviation was 25.7! About half of the people polled said they only wanted from zero to ten messages, whereas the other half wanted from 50 to 100. I also noted that a way to predict a personís answer was to ask how many daily email messages they currently received, and then to divide by two. Thus everyone feels that they are currently in overload, even the people who receive only a paltry few daily messages. Obviously, more research needs to be done in this matter.

Another major source of overload today is the information on the Web. You can spend full time surfing, and yet explore only a tiny corner of this universe. Worse yet, the explorable universe is expanding at a great rate. In fact, the number of web pages is growing faster than the number of users. No one seems to be concerned with this other than me, but it implies in the limit that, statistically speaking, no web page is seen by anyone. Of course, then there wonít be much incentive for authoring pages. Perhaps this means that the Web will ultimately collapse into a dwarf star with infinite mass and zero visibility. In the meantime, we can enjoy the ride on the big bang.

The web overload today seems to be zooming out of control. For example, the exact phrase "information overload" draws 4000 matches on AltaVista. This is too many, and by the time you read this essay it will be more. On the other hand, the phrase "information underload" draws only 20 matches, of which only one is mildly relevant. This is too few. The right number, I postulate, is about 100. But you never get the right number, do you? The problem is that the Web is growing faster than the power of our search methodologies.

Tomorrow when I go out into the world I will seek information parity -- a peaceful existence where I get exactly 28 email messages, 100 responses to every Web search, zero pages, zero voice mail messages, 6 phone messages, 10 memos, one magazine, two newspapers, one brief television show, and so forth. I will be informed, but I will be calm and confident. This is my dream.

Robert W. Lucky