Do you feel like you’re currently being inundated with too much information? People have been warning about the threat of “information overload” for decades. But a new poll by Pew Research Center shows that most Americans don’t feel overloaded at all. Unless you’re elderly or make very little money. Which, at the end of the day, makes the threat of information overload a workers’ rights issue.
In a new study, just 20 percent of Americans told pollsters that they feel overloaded by information and aren’t confident about their ability to use communications devices to “keep up with information demands” in their lives. That’s down from 27 percent who said they felt overloaded a decade ago.
So who is most concerned about information overload? One major factor was age. Just 13 percent of people between 18-29 years old felt overwhelmed by the amount of information they consume. For those Americans who were 65 and older that percentage jumped to 31 percent.
But another big factor had to do with income levels. And I’d argue that this is the most concerning. Of those Americans living in households that make $30,000 per year or less, a full 25 percent said that information overload was an issue for them. For adults living in households that take home $75,000 per year it was just 15 percent.
Yes, there are plenty of things involving the steady flow of information that can harm humans. But I would argue, with no offense to the elderly, that these potential harms are almost exclusively workplace rights issues. Which is to say that when your boss expects you to answer emails when you’re trying to have dinner with your family, that’s a problem. Or, more commonly for households making less than $30,000 per year, juggling demands around getting scheduled for a shift at the last minute. Information overload isn’t just about feeling like you’re following too many people on Twitter.
The solution isn’t restricting the flow of information in some way. It’s about changing the culture (and the laws) so that bosses don’t expect you to answer emails while you’re having dinner. And so that low income workers aren’t expected to wait around and get notice of just an hour or two before they know if they’re working that day.
On-call scheduling, which is incredibly common in American retail, is a massive scam where employees are forced to live with the uncertainty of knowing if they’ll be working on a particular day. Retailers use software to determine when foot traffic might be heavier or lighter at any given hour. It allows the company to call up more workers when things get hectic, but creates a scheduling nightmare for the employees. I can tell you with certainty that I’d feel like I have information overload if I was constantly texting back and forth with my boss about when I was working or not—a situation I’ve seen play out throughout my life with friends. Thankfully, my information overload is almost entirely self-imposed.
Information overload, like every facet of what Alvin Toffler diagnosed as future shock, is relative. What kind of information overload was Toffler worried about in his classic 1970 book, not so coincidentally titled Future Shock? Well, one thing was too many books. I’m not joking. But there’s a solution when too many books are being printed in the world and you don’t have time to read every one: Just don’t read them. And the same can be said of tweets, or even TV. Just turn it off.
Information overload as a product of a media-saturated society is in the eye of the beholder. But the real danger of information overload has to do with our vacation-free, work-saturated lives. And the solution is about dealing with our backwards attitudes towards work more than the technology that enables people to get work done.