One of the revolutionary aspects of the Internet is the vast amount of information available at our fingertips. The instant availability of hundreds and thousands of sources on a single subject is staggering. Though this can be viewed as a great asset, many argue this information overload is also contributing to the deterioration of our attention spans (see Electracy: The Current Shift). While this claim can be seen as rather extreme, it is not unreasonable to attribute the incredible increase in the quantity of information to the seemingly rapid decrease of its quality.
Nathan Shedroff addresses the question of information overload in his book Experience Design by making a clear distinction between data and information. According to Shedroff, the fact that the terms “data” and “information” are often synonymous is causing confusion. Data is “raw and overabundant” and is rarely able to usefully inform in and of itself. In order to be useful, data must be transformed and put into context. However, Shedroff points out that this raw data has become more accessible than ever, but does nothing to inform readers or promote knowledge.
Never before has so much data been produced. Yet our lives are not enhanced by any of it.
Instead, data creates an illusion of information. Shedroff specifically references the “factoids” that CNN uses to fill in time between reports and advertisements. He says that these trivial bits do not inform but only serve to distract the viewer from important information.
This is why the idea of information overload has developed. Instead of information overload, Shedroff suggests, it is an issue of data overload, data which has not been transformed into information.
Information is data put into context with thought given to its organization and presentation.
Shedroff describes information as basic, formal, and impersonal. Once data has been transformed and organized, it can become useful. It is in this process that the recent discipline of information design comes into play. Information design seeks to structure and organize information so that it is most effectively communicated and interpreted. Along with this, context is the key in transforming data into information as well as critical to successfully packaging the information. Once context is established, the information can be more easily consumed, eliminating the problem of information overload.