'Imagining the Internet' and Information Overload

While driving to and from work today (including a detour for the ubiquitous drive-thru caffeine fix malarkey) I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation downloaded from IT Conversations called 'Imagining the Internet'. Loved it.

The presentation, delivered by Janna Anderson at the Accelerating Change 2005 conference at Stanford University, provided an outline of the 'Imagining the Internet' project and a retrospective look at some of the predictions made during the years of 1990 and 1999 about the Internet and its implications to society, business and education.

"Imagining the Internet, a database of a thousand voices making thousands of Internet predictions, was created to serve as a resource and historic document. Research shines a light, using information to inspire new information. In our research for the Early '90s section of this site, we sought out and mined predictive data, reading millions of words in thousands of articles, transcripts and chapters, finding predictions in nearly 500 publications of the writings, presentations, speeches and interviews of people who had something important to say about the Internet between 1990 and 1995."

The years 1990 to 1995 has been labeled the "awe" stage by the project. It describes a transitional phase of the Internet's development (one of many), where it moved from being an environment almost exclusively accessible by research institutions and owned by the US government to one, where by 1995, the beginnings of the commercial internet had taken root.

In the recording, Anderson quoted a number predictions made during this "awe" period. It threw me back to days of sheer excitement as we realized something profound was developing. What's fascinating to me is how the quotes (archived in its 'Imagining the Internet' database) so closely mirror many of the themes discussed in today's era. Examples topics include Information Overload, Privacy, Identity, and the Commercial Control of the Internet.

Information Overload

I want to focus on the Information Overload theme for this post.

It's an appropriate label: "awe" - I was awed too (I still am...). Many were awed in those days, maybe even overawed...certainly overwhelmed by information according to some of the predictions. The Attention problem is an old problem.

Here's a quick game. Try and guess in which year the following was said. 2006, or 1991?:

"Probably of a greater concern to me regarding our rights as individuals in the future is our ability to access usable information out of a cloud that is building, a hurricane of over-information that threatens, if it continues, to serve as nothing more than nonsense deforesting large tracts of our national acreage ... To focus the amount of information we are producing on a weekly basis, which probably exceeds that produced in most of the preceding centuries, would take an enormous lens, or perhaps a million rather tiny ones."

Jack Rickard said this at Electronic Speech, Press & Assembly in 1991.  In 2006, is the cloud already here or is it still just threatening?

Here's another: 1990 or 2006?

" Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the 20th has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems. Our defenses against information glut have broken down; our information immune system is inoperable. We don't know how to filter it out; we don't know how to reduce it; we don't know to use it."

This wasn't from 2006: the late Neil Postman was complaining about the Information Overload problem in 1990 .

OK, let's make this easier, 2006 or 1993?:

"Is anyone else feeling a bit overwhelmed with the amount of information and data available at any given moment? I've signed up for so many marketing, pr, media and advertising email alerts and newsletters that by the end of the day my head is spinning. Never mind the amount of news sources, blogs, and consumer-generated media I read ever day. I feel like if I stop, I'm going to miss something big. I'm finally at the point of really understanding the age of information overload. I suspect most PR and marketing folks are in the same boat. We're all trying to keep track of our company as well as issues and opportunities facing our entire industry."

The 'blog' word should have given it away, as should the term 'consumer-generated media'...It was was poor Cindy Sullivan that wrote this, only five days ago.. For Cindy, Postman's 'immune system' is failing and Rickard's cloud has plopped itself right over Cindy's head. She's drowning.

Blogs and Consumer Generated media?

"When anything can be put on the market with a couple of clicks of a mouse, there will be even more stupid movies, dull books, sloppy data, and bad analyses - "infoglut.""

That was Christopher Locke, quoted in Fortune magazine in 1993.

Without his attention filters in place, he was clearly not enamored with the notion of loser generated content polluting the Net en masse...the publishing was barrier was already too low in those days for his liking, it was all to too easy...but others didn't agree:

"Today we have the Net, the last accidentally uncensored mass medium in existence. Is it a toy of the rich and the ivory tower, or is it potent? ... Will we allow ourselves to be possessed by the vision of a Net whose purpose is to help create and support HEROES? Or will we dismiss it all with a keystroke and get back to the REAL FUN STUFF on alt.flame.Joe.schmuck.the.world's.greatest.poophead? "

That was a great quote from Steve Crocker's 1995 Newbie Bashing article.

So then, all this content, created by us. Who's going to figure it out for us?

Paul Saffo had a guess in 1994. He wrote the following in Wired magazine.

"[An] avalanche of content ... will make context the scarce resource. Consumers will pay serious money for anything that helps them sift and sort and gather the pearls that satisfy their fickle media hungers. The future belongs to neither the conduit or content players, but those who control the filtering, searching and sense-making tools."

'The future belongs to...those who control the filtering, searching and sense-making tools'... ?  Er, that's you folks.


Related - my Attention writings


 Tags: Attention, Internet, Web, Web2.0, Tech