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Information Overload and its Economic Impact

Information overload, according to wiki, is the difficulty in understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue, and is generally associated with the excessive quantity of daily information. Information overload reduces our capacity to function effectively, which can lead to poor decisions in both work and life as well as the inability to make decisions, which is sometimes referred to as analysis paralysis, or paralysis by analysis. When the situation persists, burnout is a common result.

Causes of Overload

There are typically three types of ‘Infobesity’:

  1. Task related obesity: otherwise known as ‘work overload’.
  2. Message obesity: resulting from massive amount of incoming communication (email, viber, telegram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and their respective groupings in particular).
  3. Media obesity: media messages across many outlets, including those from outlaw media outlets (sources of mis information).

There are nearly as many causes of information overload as there are bits of information available to us. The most common reasons behind modern information overload include:

  • Huge volumes of new information being constantly created (imagine millions of wannabe celes)
  • Pressure to create and compete in information provision – leading to a quantity over quality effect (consider many Myanmar ladies dancing the same way to show off their “assets” in TikTok)
  • The simplicity of creating, duplicating and sharing of information online (nowadays you don’t even need a computer anymore)
  • The exponential increase in channels to receive information by; radio, television, print media, websites, e-mail, mobile telephony, RSS feeds, etc. (just think of fake news on Myanmar coming out of Chiang Mai alone)
  • The increasing weight of historical data available to us (hence, chatGPT!)
  • High volumes of conflicting, contradictory and plain old inaccurate information (more conspiracy theories than ever on social media these days)
  • No simple methodologies for quickly processing, comparing and evaluating information sources (no efficient way to identify fake news in this world yet)
  • A lack of clear structure in groups of information and poor clues as to the relationships between those groups (anonymity promotes creating of propaganda groups void of accountability and responsibility)

Technically speaking, “infoglut” occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Human decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.

Effects of Overload

We are so primed and conditioned to consume information, that we often engage in behaviours that trigger information overload without even realising it.

Examples of this can include habitually scrolling through social media or instant messages on your phone while at work or attempting to focus on one task, having multiple screen tabs open at the same time and shifting between them and juggling multiple tasks simultaneously while splitting your attention between them.

Performance wise, some symptoms of information overload are: inefficient work, confusion, delay in making decisions, lack of critical evaluation of information, loss of control over information, refusal to receive communication, lack of general perspective, greater tolerance for error, anxiety, stress, etc. ‘Infoxification’ has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone, cortisol, as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. May be many of Myanmar citizens may be guilty of that too, believing in fake news and consequently feeling scared to death and some even refusing to come out of their houses.

The constant noise created by cognitive overload has a collective effect on our minds, developing both anxiety and confusion. The perpetual tension and restlessness can rise, affecting our emotional well-being, which can lead to many psychological discomforts such as mood swings, irritability, and depression.

This can be incredibly overwhelming, and if not managed, make your whole new life much less enjoyable. When our brains are overloaded with too much data from the outside world, we can struggle to absorb, process, and make sense of it — hampering our ability to make smart decisions and perform at our best. Take an example of many holiday makers refusing to go to Ngapali during this season, despite being such a safe place to rest and relax.

While it might sound innocuous enough, the long-term effects of information overload are serious. Some of the negative effects of experiencing information overload include:

Textual overload – the eventual outcome of receiving more textual data and information than you can process, leading to feelings of confusion, frustration and exhaustion. I am sure all of us can recall such recent experiences.

Outcome overload – the effect of information overload on the outcome of your tasks. Too much information can leave you fatigued and slow down your workflows, hindering your productivity and leaving work vulnerable to errors, omissions and inaccuracies. Envision the news or lack of, on clashes on Northern Shan State, for decision makers.

Analysis paralysis – being overwhelmed with too much data makes you prone to overthink and over analyse every potential option and its outcome, creating more confusion and uncertainty and leaving you unable to progress or move forward with a final decision. Many stay at home wives are guilty of that, wanting their husbands to be henpecked and forcing them to stay put at home.

Over time, repeated exposure to information overload can impact a person’s physical and mental wellbeing, commonly leading to feelings of disillusionment and persistent confusion while working or conducting research. Fatigue, mental exhaustion and burnout can also occur more quickly when we’re operating in a constant state of information overload.

If you consider the social media and digital platforms, our clicks and engagement with the content presented to us also informs their algorithms what kind of content we most enjoy and interact with. Thereafter, we are fed incessantly all the related contents, regardless of whatever impact these feeds might have on the viewers/users. More ad $ for the platforms, more Infoxification for us. In this information age, where content can be created and curated seamlessly for the purpose of views, this can quickly become hazardous, increasing our chances of viewing and engaging with fake news and misinformation.

The more fatigued we become from information overload, the more likely we are to only engage with surface-level social media content (whether for work or life), which can be fake, inaccurate or even irrelevant. Not only can this negatively impact our work and our professional relationships,  but it can also leave us vulnerable to consuming potentially harmful content that could subliminally influence our beliefs and actions. We have in Myanmar, so many cases of relatives and close friends become brusque and stand-offish to each other, after being convinced by the misinformation on social media or fake news spread by illegal digital media outlets.

Prevailing over Overload

Suffering from Infobesity is not something we ever feel used to, no matter how connected we are to our phones, the internet, apps and so on. The long-time effects and consequences are simply not worth it.

What can we do as modern humans? Unplug entirely? That’s not a viable option for 99% of us, but there are a few things we can do to mitigate the effects of Infoglut and protect our precious attention, focus, creativity and minds.

Avoid juggling multiple tasks – multitasking is often touted as a skill worth bragging about but in reality, it’s not good for our mental health or productivity. Try to eliminate multitasking or, if that’s impossible, try to limit it to no more than two tasks at a time.

Use tech and tools to manage data – dealing with inordinate volumes of data is exhausting for a person. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, look into AI and other digital tools that can process large data volumes in seconds to do the mental heavy lifting for you. Generative AI can be a great tool for speeding up research, summarising and collecting and presenting information in a digestible way.

Implement attention management strategies – simplify and segment your roles and responsibilities where possible. Prioritising urgent tasks while delegating less urgent ones, or postponing them, can free up your time and your focus. Breaking down your tasks into smaller steps to complete can also make them more easily manageable, reducing the likelihood of information overload.

Take breaks – if you suddenly feel overwhelmed, tired, frustrated or confused, take a break from your screen. Get up and stretch your legs, make a cup of coffee or tea or take some deep breaths. It’s impossible to avoid cognitive overload completely, so taking breaks and disconnecting at certain times is an important coping strategy that can relieve stress and boost productivity.

In terms of what is happening and being specific to Myanmar, we can summarise five short ways to deal with news/information overload:

  1. Be choosy about choosing: Choose the right news channel, to would represent true news or a channel that does not have a history of representing fake news. Take note that even mainstream media failed to produce balance news most of the times.
  2. Identify three or five channels/sources to follow. When it comes to news gathering, it is no longer the more the merrier.
  3. Understand the importance of each story; is it propaganda? Is it for spreading hatred towards a particular group? Is it to induce sympathy and subsequent donations? Be sure or at least make an educated guess about its motives.
  4. Put a time limit on information gathering. The world would not end tomorrow and no one is going to give you a Pulitzer or a Nobel for getting the perfect ten.
  5. Schedule your information viewing activities. No point looking at fb, telegram, whatsapps or messenger, every five minutes. The sky is not going to collapse during your absence from screen time.

It’s time to make a choice: either you prevail or let the Information and accompanying falsehood overload us to ruin us all! As Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”.