A favorite category of blog posts are ones that start as a comment in someone else’s blog that expands so much it takes root back on your own site. That’s what happened after reading Wes Fryer’s post How are you dealing with TMI? (Too Much Information). I applaud Wes for opening up a topic, but I’m going out on a barking limb here because I read in the comments a long line of head bobbing nodding, and even the question of “how you deal with it” to me begs the answer in a misplaced direction of looking for simple bullet point list answers.

However, I have even more push back about this (manufactured) notion of “Too Much Information”. Is that really the situation?

cc licensed flickr photo shared by calonda

Even before the web, the internet. etc, this world was full of more information than I could possibly manage in my head- every animal species, every Shakespearean sonnet, every detail of Egyptian history, every mineral, every math formula– there is a lot of information on the world. Where is this assumption come from that there was a time when there was less than “too much”?

But it’s not really about the height of the information pile, the volume of it– its more about how we organize and approach it. And what I read is a lot of file cabinet mindsets. Wes quotes from related post by Kevin Washburn on , TMI! Information Overload and Learning

We can maintain a quick and steady pace when we enter information into a database or spreadsheet, simply pushing “return” or “tab” to move to the next entry, but the brain is not a computer. It has limits. Data funneled endlessly through the senses prevents the processing required for learning.

What do students’ brains need to do to construct new learning? Let’s listen in as the neural “Data Manager” oversees the processing”¦

Where is the evidence of this being the way the brain works? That it is like data entry, one row typed in at a time until the red light screeches “Red Alert!” Is someone metering this “funneled flow of data endlessly through the senses”, and carefully monitoring the loss of learning on some measurable scale?

Do we really know the limits of the brain? I am no neuroscientist, but from the bits I read and TED videos I groove on, I get the impression we still do not fully comprehend how the brain works, or even have more than a fuzzy idea. Even talking in terms of fixed “capacity” or limits of the brain is just a simple metaphor applied to a complex entity. Is the brain really a fixed volume bucket, a box that can “fill”? It just does not wash with me as even close to reality.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by foundphotoslj

Even Washburn’s clever description (which I do like for outlining the range of tasks it seems a brain does) to me is grossly too simple for the brain- it suggests a picture of a single file clerk named Mabel, patiently carefully organizing things one at a time. Everything is neatly cataloged. Yes, Washburn does say this “manager” notion is overly simplistic, and while I am a major user/abuser of metaphors– sometimes it is just too simple and leads to misplaced notions, like applying rules of fluids to things like thought which do not follow the same laws of physics.

I say there is no such thing as Too Much Information– it is a made-up crutch to help deal with our fears.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by M J M

Think about it, if there is TMI, that then suggests a desire of the opposite— do we really want less information in this world? What road does that lead down? Toward a sign saying “Welcome to Blissful Ignorance”?

It’s not that we have Too Much Information, it’s that we are using old ways of thinking to deal with new forms of information– we hold onto that concept of Mabel that information we need to keep organized and filed away in neat folders, that we have to “fill ourselves” with data and facts, that it must be stored inside of us.

It’s not that we have Too Much Information, its that we have Too Little Skill in managing it differently and we get mired down in our inability to accept that we cannot contain it all. I’m proud of saying I don’t know much but I know how to get to know what I don’t know. We don’t have to keep the information inside of us, we have to be versed in the flow of it, and of letting a lot of it flow by and not worrying that we are losing because we are not filling up our buckets with information. And knowing when we don’t have to have our lips on the hose.

I think (and its just my own Mabel running a revolution in the office upstairs) that TMI is a made up throw away phrase that sounds re-assuring, but to me it is bunk.

I fully expect some strong rebuttals… oh I don’t have to worry because everyone is satiated with TMI, too lethargic to comment.

The post "The Myth of TMI" was originally rescued from the bottom of a stangant pond at CogDogBlog (http://cogdogblog.com/2009/07/myth-tmi/) on July 8, 2009.

12 Comments

  • “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure” Clay Shirky.

  • Steve Flowers

    Haha – well said. I was thinking something similar – I don’t think that there’s a limit capacity wise in theory to bulk-wise processing.

    I do have to counter, however, with two things. First, what about motivation / volition? For me, nothing beats straight to the point relevance. If it ain’t relevant, I ain’t interested. TMI in this situation would be anything that isn’t relevant to the focus. Second is priorities and time. I think one of the concerns with TMI is there just isn’t enough time in a day to take it all in. Good tools and human filters help with this immensely.

    It seems to me that an expert that already has his storage spots well marked isn’t going to have trouble with information overload. They can easily sift through and find value. The novice isn’t gonna like being buried in the lumberyard when all they needed was a walking stick.

    For my money (and time) I’d rather have more choice than less.

  • Shared Items From Google Reader – July 9, 2009 at timlauer.org timlauer.org/2009/07/09/shared-items-from-google-reader-july-9-2009

    […] The Myth of TMI […]

  • “Like your post very much, will bookmark site and come back. But right now too much information.” :)

    What a post, you nail a shift in thought and imagining that is so very important, and it is no surprise to me that where the issue lies is in the metaphors and analogies we use to understand the management of information which are obsolete in so many ways. This is a fantastic critque of the TMI myth.

  • I think both Wes Fryer and you are missing part of the point. Of course there is never too much information in the world and mankind continually seeks to understand more. I think the TMI here is an emotion one feels when overloaded with to much information at once, perhaps like after attending a conference like NECC and hearing so many new ideas at once.

    The solution to this feeling is the brain needs space to step back from new information and process for awhile. It is not really about there being too much information in the world or the limits of the brain, but about a human’s need to unplug and think about things for awhile before overloading the brain with more new ideas. After some space for reflection, then we are ready to jump into the new ideas again. But if we never slow down for a space to meditate and process then our new “knowledge” is likely to only be superficial at best or quickly forgotten in whatever file it goes in.

  • D'Arcy Norman darcynorman.net

    Excellent post, Alan. The quantity of information isn’t the problem, it’s the unchecked compulsion to consume it all. I’m not sure why the compulsion exists, but that’s the problem – not the amount of info, or strategies to organize it, or anything that falls out of these…

  • Alan Levine aka CogDog cogdogblog.com

    @Dean- ahh that was the perfect Shirky quote I missed.

    @Steve I’d agree motivation is key, but what it the motivation to “keep up”? Is it the honest hunger to find new and unknown or is it the fear of being “left behind”? I am not buying the relevance theory, it sounds nice, like you always have a purpose, but a lot of my scanning is to look at the zone of irrelevance to discover new things to make relevant. Otherwise, it sounds like navigating with blinders. Just my IMHO

    @concretekax- I am on continual path of point missing but I enjoy putting out ideas that get thoughtfully shot down then trying to be some freaking pundit or expert. My point was thinking of the brain as a simple volume container is starting with a fallacy, and I wish I had D’Arcy’s phrase, “unchecked compulsion to consume it all” and proceeding with trying to manage new forms of information in an old way. So yes, a NECC conference exposes you to a flood of new things. What is the urgency to grab at all the straws at once? Isn’t there some buried layer of fear that says if you dont try to grok it all, other people will get there first? That you will “behind”? Doesn’t it make sense to take more of a scanning approach, collecting references (links, people) to return to later. e.g as you suggest after some brain yoga? I dont disagree at all the the reflective stepping back is very healthy. I use this all the time to think while exercising, long drives, etc.

    What I object mostly is suggesting TMI exists like a syndrome, and people using it as an excuse not to innovate, change, to remain in a catatonic status of paralyzed status quo.

  • Alan – great post. Aligns very well with what I perceive as the most important skills gap among knowledge workers. Too Much Information or Skills Gap?

  • Sflowers

    I think we ‘might’ be mixing contexts:)

    It seems to me Kevin Washburn is referring to the structured experience. That’s what I was talking about with the relevance poke above. Not in the self-didact / informal learning sense.

    Take, for example, an organization’s policy on Sexual Harassment (or any policy reference). The program SME contains X^3 information about statistics, policy conditions, processes, history, etc… Would you rather (1) have all of that information packaged up in a monolithic pill or (2) just tell me what my responsibilities are (relevance) and let me move on.

    This may be (is definitely) a bad example… Since I’m not sure that many, if any, organizations get what they need from a preventative maintenance dipping.

    Apply this same framing to any novice or general level training / skill building. Drinking from the firehose isn’t strategic.

    Now flip that around once the basic level components / KSA are out of the way. I’d agree that for these folks and the auto-didact types we shouldn’t valve or selectively present targeted / pre-filtered stuff.

    I think one of the things we need to take care to avoid in debates like this is the ‘one size fits all’ mentality. At one end of the scale we are seeing a healthy push towards ‘less is more’ for self-directed structured learning packages and activities. At the other end of the scale informal learning pushes the boundaries with ‘bring it on – give it all’.

    At some point I hope we are able to clearly and consistently map out the contextual differences where patterns and approaches actually work – AND how the goals of the contexts are not mutually exclusive.

  • Jeannette

    Hi Alan,

    I love the post and agree with most of it. I recently read this quote, and I found it to summarize the heart of this issue. “The capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.” (George Siemens, 2004). I always return to this when I feel overwhelmed by TMI.

    Thanks for a great post,

    ~jeannette

  • And here I thought TMI always meant something too personal. Silly me….

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