Information vs. Overload

If I retained one thing from my high school economics class, it was the concept of diminishing marginal utility. Apparently, the pizza analogy really captured my attention. It went something like this (please forgive this former English major if she is totally botching it): You stop into a pizza shop for lunch and buy yourself a slice. You are really hungry, and that slice is incredible. It is worth way more to you than the three dollars you spent on it. You decide to go for a second slice, which is also pretty satisfying and worth the price. By the time you’ve gone back for a third slice, you are feeling pretty neutral about it going down the hatch. After that point, additional slices equal pain, not pleasure, and they will no longer hold value for you (until lunchtime tomorrow).

Sometimes I wonder if this concept could be applied in some way to the problem of information overload. Imagine that the product is information and the cost is the time spent consuming it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened a browser in search of information or inspiration, only to find later that I’ve taken in more than I really needed or wanted, or spent too much valuable time, well, “browsing.” Depending on the question I’m trying to answer or how I’m feeling on a given day, there is a certain point at which the amount of information I’m taking in is no longer worth the time I’m spending consuming it. Unfortunately, it can be such a challenge to acknowledge when I’ve hit that point and release myself from the vortex of the screen.

There’s another challenge, which has to do with the intersection of the quality of the information we encounter, the order in which we encounter it, and our energy levels at various points throughout the day. For example, if I come across an incredibly beautiful and inspiring essay—exactly the sort of essay I had been looking for—at the very end of the day, I am probably too tired to really enjoy and process it. On the other hand, if I have spent the first precious hours of the morning flipping through a near-stranger’s endless collection of vacation photos, perhaps the quality of the information consumed was not equal to the nature and quantity of the time spent on it.

Many services and applications are coming up with welcome possibilities to help us manage the fire hose of information. Increasingly powerful search engines bring us closer to finding what we’re really looking for, and various forms of curation and personalization help bring content that may have more value to our attention first. Still, I often feel as though it really comes down to me, my browser, and my will power. Even a genius search engine and a fabulous curator can’t tell me when enough is enough, those extra slices are just giving me a stomach ache, and one more article is only going to tip the scale of my time in the wrong direction. There is enough incredible information in this world to fill lifetimes; it’s up to me to decide how much of it I can really handle in this one.