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Workagolism and Chronic Work Overload Bulletin, 2001

[Aug 25, 2001] Stress hits Swedes in IT jobs - Tech News -

Swedes working in information technology, which has gone from boom to bust in the past two years, are off sick more often than people employed in all other sectors except health care, new data showed Friday.

A study made by insurance group Alecta found a skyrocketing frequency of sick leave, especially among highly paid women.

"The IT sector may soon be suffering from as many sick-leave absences as health care," Alecta said in a statement.

Its data covered 620,000 people, or roughly one-seventh of Sweden's labor force.

"We can also see that sick leave has increased most among women. The rise is remarkably high, particularly for well-paid women," Birgitta Rolander, head of Alecta's health and welfare department, said in the statement.

Stress and depression were the most common reasons for Swedes' sick leave in the first half of 2001, while absenteeism due to burn-out had declined compared with January-June 2000, the data showed.

[Aug 03, 2001] IT staff cracking up under pressure By James Middleton

IT managers may well be on the brink of burn-out, according to research which found that many technical staff are being pushed beyond the limits in terms of working hours.

The results found that a quarter of IT managers work a 60-hour week, which represents almost four hours overtime per day. Also, 90 per cent of IT managers typically exceed the 48-hour working week set out by the European Working Time Directive.

Government sector workers are hardest hit, with 100 per cent of respondents working above and beyond the call of duty. Retail was second worst with 93 per cent working overtime, followed closely by the education, finance, manufacturing and hi-tech sectors.

The main reason behind the extra hours was a lack of resources, according to 28 per cent of the respondents. Another 22 per cent said that the pressure of development work accounted for extra time, with 10 per cent highlighting unrealistic deadlines as a major problem. A further 14 per cent said that they were expected to be available for out of hours support calls.

David Godwin, vice president of strategy at Attenda, the internet outsourcing company responsible for the research, said that "UK companies needed to adopt a 24-hour culture if they were to succeed in the internet economy".

But he added that the UK was going about it the wrong way by putting the "responsibility for maintaining a 24-hour presence onto in-house IT departments on top of already heavy workloads".

Almost all IT managers in the south of England, excluding those in London, said they were affected by extra working hours, with the next worst spot being the Midlands. Around 86 per cent of London managers said they were affected, with 75 per cent in Scotland and 71 per cent in the north of England.

Godwin likened the IT manager working day to that of a junior doctor. "While burn-out among IT managers is not a matter of life or death, the potential to cause damage to their companies' online presence is great," he said.

InformationWeek Breakaway Careers Is That Overwork Or Just Enthusiasm May 28, 2001 Page 1

What a recent study considers overwork in the U.S. workforce at large may be little more than business-as-usual for the IT professional. Working "12 to 14 hour days and over the weekend is just the status quo for IT," says Russell Clark, director of E-commerce and portals for OAO Technology Solutions Inc., an IT consulting firm with a staff of 2,200, in Greenbelt, Md.

But Clark agrees with the Families and Work Institute survey of 1,003 workers that it's not just the amount of work that determines whether someone feels overworked. Hard work paired with personal control over the work--for example, working to advance in a career, or saving toward college--can give a feeling of satisfaction. Overwork is more likely when people work longer hours for external reasons, such as needing to meet management expectations or because the workload requires that much time.

Or maybe it's boring. IT professionals generally work on a project basis, and for Clark there's a thrill akin to winning a race in reaching project milestones and hitting the big deadlines. "You love it," he says. "but if it's a project you're not interested in, once you get past eight hours, you get upset."

Some say no matter what the job, consistent long hours still add up to overwork. John Drake, author of Downshifting (Berrett-Koehler, 2001), and founder of an HR consulting firm known now as Drake Beam Morin, says IT is probably the worst area for overwork abuse. "IT is a key piece in most companies; long hours and dedication are expected--especially in small startups where it's 'we give you stock, you grow the company, work 12 to 16 hours a day,'" he says.

To avoid employee burnout, Clark rotates the work among his 20 staffers, and encourages a team environment where it's easy to have fun. In a previous job at Disney/ABC Sports, his group created sports games for PCs and PlayStations. Project deadlines coincided with the start of each major league season: baseball was due by April, football by August. "Even if you're not into sports, you'd get into it," he says. "Staying late and on weekends was just fun to us. If I were by myself doing the same work, it would've been no fun."

Longer work hours are becoming the norm, though not by choice. The average American employee works 42 hours a week and would prefer to work just under 35. A recently released InformationWeek Research 2001 Salary Survey finds that on average, IT staffers work 45 hours a week plus 24 hours of on-call time. Managers are working 50 hours a week, and on-call time is up 60% from last year's 15 hours a week to 24 hours.

Beth Devin, senior VP of retail technology, Charles Schwab & Co., says IT systems are partially to blame for the longer on-call hours. More systems are 24-by-7, she says, "more are customer-facing, so they can't go down. Before, you could do lots of background work during hours when the business is closed."

Drake says there's a cost to overwork: It can lead to costly mistakes, resentment, anger, and even workplace violence. His bottom line: Companies will only do something about the problem if they see a payoff. Drake expects the big payoff to be greater retention of good employees and lower recruiting costs.

eCFO Fighting Information Overload, March 2001

Knowledge management software helps you find the most relevant, most useful data.

Originally published in CFO, March 2001

By Alix Nyberg

Despite its corporate intranet, its vast network of servers, and plenty of business intelligence tools, Ericsson Research Canada ( knew full well that there were lots of duplicate efforts among its 103,000 employees. One big reason, says Anders Hemre, the company's chief knowledge officer, is that the employees, like workers everywhere, tend to rely on personal networks for information, rather than on a central data repository.

Despite advances in technology, often it's simply easier to ask the person in the next cube about a project, schedule, or what have you. Trouble is, what's efficient for one person at one moment is not necessarily what's best for the organization as a whole. No matter how bright the person next door may be, the explosion in information of all types guarantees that the shoulder-tapping method will often yield less than optimum results.

So last year, when Hemre was charged with improving the flow of internal information, he modeled his approach on a very simple structure: the lunch table. Believing that casual, give-and-take lunchtime conversations on current issues generate the most useful information, Hemre spent a year working with a consultant to organize extradepartmental "communities of practice" that would draw together people with similar business interests for loosely structured brainstorming and dialoguing sessions.

Then he added a technologic component. Organik, a searchable database organized around user-submitted questions and answers, provides a place for the groups to log insights that emerge from the meetings. "They go through face-to-face discussions about the issues first, then we take them to technology," says Hemre. Users can later query the database with natural-language questions and receive answers to similar questions. They can also find people Organik has identified as subject experts based on their previous responses. - Paul Farrell Technology 'workaholics' sabotaging America

LOS ANGELES (CBS.MW) -- In a recent column, "No Thanks, I Don't Want To Be A Millionaire," we reviewed an AARP survey of Americans' attitudes toward getting rich. Interestingly, they discovered that lots of Americans are saying: "No, I don't want to get rich. I don't want to be wealthy. I don't want to be a millionaire."

Why? Because it's just not worth it to them. The price is too high, too much of a loss of their humanness. However, for a majority of Americans, getting rich is a major goal -- but they are paying a high price.

Sorry, too busy for Workaholics Anonymous!

"The more we become connected, the more detached we become to the more
human elements of life."

U.S. News &
World Report

And unfortunately, the price is getting even higher. Listen to how subtle and deep the problem has become. A recent U.S. News & World Report tells of a software engineer who was "too busy" to drive some distance to Workaholics Anonymous meetings for help with his addiction.

So he set up an Internet chapter of the organization. Now he's got time to spend kvetching online with more than one hundred workaholics worldwide who attend these digital meetings.

But that's hardly scratching the surface. Turns out that 44% of Americans call themselves workaholics, well over 100 million. No wonder U.S. News is concerned about this new addiction:

"Can we keep working harder and harder indefinitely?" Americans are now working an average of 47 hours a week, an increase of 4 hours in two decades. We're working longer and harder, and yet a recent Gallup poll shows that 77% of us "enjoy the time away from work more than they do their time on the job." In short, most Americans are not "doing what they love." Most are "doing what they don't love," assuming the money will follow. But at what price?

Will technology sabotage the new economy?

These surveys are interesting. America's economy, our markets, our companies, our labor force are all focused on increasing productivity, output, returns, wealth. And one of the great benefits of technology was supposed to be as a labor-saving tool.

Technology was supposed to increase the efficiency of human effort per production unit, make life easier, and (we were promised) give us more time for our personal lives. What a joke! The opposite is the truth. Listen to Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter:

This issue is not going away. In fact, it is absolutely guaranteed to become a much bigger problem for Americans. Moreover, at some point it is likely to backfire and sabotage many of the positive gains technology is clearly adding to our new economy, as Roach hints.

Scary stuff! We know technology's promises are already backfiring on a strictly materialistic level, forcing us to work harder, not less. But, in addition, they are also taking away our intangible humanness, especially with Internet technology, because, "the more we become connected, the more detached we become to the more human elements of life."

ZDNet Story End Inbox Blues Common-Sense Ways to Control Email Overload

If that scares the *#$*# out of you (hey, it does me!) -- you'll want to adopt these four tips the experts use to keep their inboxes under control.

Automate tasks. If you always include contact information when you sign your emails, create a signature. If you always forward mail from certain senders to someone else, automate the procedure. If you haven't created work group aliases, set them up. ZDTV's Back to Basics feature provides step-by-step tips for a variety of email clients. Click for more.

Preview messages. How many messages do you really need to open? Sometimes I can glance at the subject line to know I can hit delete. Other times I need a little more info. The preview pane integrated in Outlook 2000 allows me to quickly scan an email without opening it, and scroll by pressing my spacebar. Click for more.

Discipline yourself. Efficiency experts recommend dealing with a piece of paper only once. That's good advice for managing email, too. Once a message arrives, read it and act on it. Delete it. Respond to it. File it. Click for more.

Don't duplicate. Announce your preferred means of communication. How many times has someone emailed and faxed you identical information -- and then phoned to see if you received it? That kind of duplication is a time sink -- for everyone involved. Click for more.

Stay safe. Email viruses can create one of the biggest time sinks you'll come across. And we've had way too many of them in recent months. Be vigilant, even skeptical when you receive mail from someone you don't know. Make sure your anti-virus software is up to date. The experts at ZDNet Help have a laundry list of virus dos and don'ts. Click for more.

Name: Mark H. Walker
Location: Virginia, U.S.A.
Occupation: Journalist
There's a simple way to control the overload: Don't check it. I'm an electronic entertainment journalist and heavily involved in the techno-industry. Accordingly, email is an intregal part of my life. But, I can't get *to* my life if I'm always checking email. I try to only check once a day --at a low energy time like 4:00 PM. I tell all my clients/contacts that I welcome phone calls. They take much less time in the long run, and I get to hear a human voice.
Name: Yusuf I. Okhai
Location: Dundee, Scotland
Occupation: Managing Director
There is a simple way to manage email. Autoforward to a hotmail account - deal with it every day on the move. When you come home, mailbox is manageable. Personally, I forward the mail to my roaming mail, and collect it with my Nokia 9110. Life is so much better now!
Name: Doris Igna
Location: London, Ontario,Canada
Occupation: Ret,d.Accountant
Folders are my solution, just as I would sort snail mail,before reading, I sort email, Even Jesse has his own folder, this way I deal with the most important first, and can go back to the others when I have time. Anything dubious I hit the delete button.

See also ZDNet Story Don't Let Your Inbox Kill You Cure for the Outlook Bloat

princht.htm -- Consumption, Ecological Constraint, and the Nature of Work* by Thomas Princen

Work-Related Stress

Recently, the commander of Canada's military, Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, left his work to be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. He says he didn't lose his ability to cope until two years after the mission to Rwanda, when he became suicidal.

"Sometimes I wish I'd lost a leg," he says on a video produced for counselling of soldiers. "You lose a leg, it's obvious and you've got therapy and all kinds of stuff. You lose your marbles ... very, very difficult to explain, very difficult to gain the support that you need."

This military commander's testimony lends credibility to the crushing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, which arises from experiencing one or more extraordinarily horrific and life-threatening events.

By contrast, teachers' stress typically arises gradually over many years, resulting in accumulative stress disorder or ASD-commonly called burn-out or exhaustion. Recently a teacher of 22 years described it this way: "I'm not sleeping through, waking in the night with panic attacks, loss of memory, on edge at home and school, mind racing. Calmed myself with a few drinks in the evening; that made me more edgy, so I quit that. I'm getting more and more distant from my wife and kids, and I'm burnt out of my career. I don't even know who I am anymore."

What major factors contribute to teachers' accumulative stress? Take an idealistic, mission-oriented teacher who tries to meet everybody's needs; place this teacher in a hurried, time-bound, ever-evolving school system that can ask for the best on the one hand, and can erode character and destroy trust on the other; set the school system in communities and among families who question authority; and add the aging process and the family life events that will inevitably occur with that teacher. The result: numbers of teachers experience the extreme effects of accumulative stress on themselves, their work and, eventually, on their families.

As a counsellor with NSTU, I am privileged to meet some of the most dedicated teachers in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, by the time I meet them in counselling, they are often extremely exhausted, suffering from ASD. This is understandable, for as General Dallaire says, "You lose a leg, it's obvious." ASD creeps up. Teachers lose their energy, their sleep, their desire and capability to care, their identity as a good teacher. They wait and wait, hoping the next weekend, holiday or vacation will fully restore them. Their families and friends share the burden. Sometimes it is only when these teachers notice the effects on their families and friends that they take corrective action.

Without breaching confidentiality, this article gives voice to exhausted, disheartened teachers and the effects of accumulative stress on their families. These teachers offer a message of courage for us all.

As teachers gradually accumulate stress, families can lose teachers to teaching. A husband stands at the back door on August 20 with the family pet beside him. His wife, a teacher, is going to school to set up her classroom. He mutters to the dog, "Say good-bye to her, Skippy. That's the last we'll see of her until next July 1."

Just as family stress goes to school with teachers, so too does work-related stress, and no scalpel exists that could divide the stress created in the two main centres of our lives.

Teachers express stress many ways in families. Consider the following:

"And you can forget about sex till March break," declared one teacher to her chagrined husband. "Too many students, reports and meetings to focus on anything else."

"So Dad, why are you so grouchy when you come home from school?" a 12-year-old daughter asks her father, a teacher of 28 years. "Mom tells me to go to my room and stay out of your way."

Does teaching in today's school affect teachers' home life more than in past years? Many teachers would say, "Yes, definitely." One male high school teacher aptly explains, "I'm overwhelmed with kids' problems. They're dealing with probation, pregnancy, drugs, you name it. The system is designed to burn you out if you're too conscientious in care of the kids. It's stacked against you. You can't do the job the way you know is best for the kids. I know I was a good teacher. I don't know any more if I can even be a decent husband or father."

Teachers commonly describe the burden of guilt and neglect of their own families. "I put more time and effort into my students than into my own children. And when I do spend time with my kids, I'm often correcting their behaviour and trying to control them to live up to my perfectionist standards. Is it possible to just enjoy my own kids?" asks one beleaguered teacher.

The stress on the family can become extreme when sick leave has been used up. One anxious teacher put it this way, "I just don't know how we're going to manage while waiting for the salary continuation decision. And if it doesn't come through, I'm just going to have to go back to the classroom, even if it ruins my health for life. My family depends on my income; I have no choice."

Of course, some of the effect of teachers' work stress on their families is inevitable. As caring persons, teachers take students' needs to heart and may be unaware of the costs of caring. Teachers may minimize the costs of work-related stress on families and glibly accept the cost as "part of the price of doing a good job." For the idealistic teacher, "caring too much" is an oxymoron.

For the exhausted teacher, "caring too much" smacks of reality. And the threat of breakdown of health, or of couple and family relationships, is often the bell that tolls the heavy cost of teachers' accumulative stress. As one teacher observed, "I didn't know my partner meant so much to me till we temporarily separated. It's funny too-the first time in years that I told my kids how much they meant to me was when I was down and out. I'm reunited with my partner now, so I guess this work exhaustion had a silver lining for me with my family."

Teachers daily walk the shoreline of social change, where past ways of thinking and relating meet future ways of doing and being. This presents both danger and opportunity: the danger of losing values of the past, and the opportunity of participating in co-creating the future. Travelling this shoreline throughout a teaching career requires a delicate balance.

Teaching entails a great deal of planning for tomorrow and evaluating yesterday. Hence, for teachers it's a struggle to live "today." While evaluating students' work, teachers are implicitly evaluating themselves, and often coming out feeling they are less than superb. This can induce considerable self-pressure. By comparison, most of the working public undergo only annual performance evaluations.

Since most teachers want to create both healthy families and healthy school environments, how can teachers reduce work-related stress in their homes and foster healthy work-styles in their schools?

First, recognize accumulative stress as a reality. Don't wait for the possible breakdown of health or couple-family relationships to toll your alarm bell. Refuse to live at work. Limit your work time by your energy level and the clock, not by the time demands of the task.

Contribute to healthy work styles among staff. Support time for self-care, setting limits and saying "no" as warranted. Share resources, ideas and mutual appreciation.

Here are four suggestions from teachers recovering from exhaustion.

Teachers often describe the peak of accumulative stress as a breakdown. Later in the healing process, they may describe it as a breakthrough. It's a breakthrough to choose a liveable balance of work and play, family life and school life. It's a breakthrough to the courage to be.

Peter Mullally is a Therapist of Counselling Services at the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Challenges of Growth - Legal and Practicle

It is an unfortunate truism, that employers often spend 90% of their time addressing only 10% of their staff - the low or non-performer. In contrast, it seems almost perverse that the most valued employees are often on the verge of burn-out because they have an "overload of negatives and few positives in their work environment - - too many pressures, conflicts and demands combined with too few rewards, acknowledgments and successes." Are You Burning Out Valuable Resources? HR Magazine (Jan. 1999)(emphasis added).

The problem of burn-out of the best is particularly acute among technology workers. These tend to be highly motivated individuals who feel a strong commitment to their work and, as a result, are most susceptible to exhaustion. A survey conducted by the SHRM Foundation and Indiana University seems to bear this out. The survey was administered to technology professionals (programmers, system designers and managers) through a random sampling of the membership of the Association for Information Technology Professionals (f/k/a the Data Processing Management Association). Of the 270 participants, 48 (18%) were determined to be work-exhausted based on their responses to the survey. The study organizers also opined that 18% was likely a low estimate, since a number of professionals actually experiencing work exhaustion may not have taken the time to participate in the survey.

The resolution to the problem is clear. Redirect some of the time and energy spent on those who contribute the least, and spend it on those who contribute the most. Managers should be trained to keep tabs on workloads and morale, provide acknowledgment and express appreciation, and, in some cases, redesign jobs to eliminate impossible workloads. Even the mundane task of distributing paychecks to your employees is a golden opportunity to tell an employee that you noticed his or her efforts that week and that you really appreciate what has been done.


Coping with job demands at workplaces and occupational health service units

Health Effects of Long Work Hours Leanne Lehmkuhl, 32 HOURS Research Associate August, 1999

[May 25, 2000] The Social Life of Information

Of course, it's easy to get foolishly romantic about the pleasures of the "simpler" times. Few people really want to abandon information technology. Hours spent in a bank line, when the ATM in the supermarket can do the job in seconds, have little charm. Lose your papers in a less-developed country and trudge, as locals must do all the time, from line to line, from form to form, from office to office and you quickly realize that life without information technology, like life without modern sanitation, may seem simpler and even more "authentic," but for those who have to live it, it is not necessarily easier or more pleasant.

Even those people who continue to resist computers, faxes, e-mail, personal digital assistants, let alone the Internet and the World Wide Web, can hardly avoid taking advantage of the embedded microchips and invisible processors that make phones easier to use, cars safer to drive, appliances more reliable, utilities more predictable, toys and games more enjoyable, and the trains run on time. Though any of these technologies can undoubtedly be infuriating, most people who complain want improvements, not to go back to life without them. [4]

Nonetheless, there is little reason for complacency. Information technology has been wonderfully successful in many ways. But those successes have extended its ambition without necessarily broadening its outlook. Information is still the tool for all tasks. Consequently, living and working in the midst of information resources like the Internet and the World Wide Web can resemble watching a firefighter attempt to extinguish a fire with napalm. If your Web page is hard to understand, link to another. If a "help" system gets overburdened, add a "help on using help." If your answer isn't here, then click on through another 1,000 pages. Problems with information? Add more.

...Yet it can be easy for a logic of information to push aside the more practical logic of humanity. For example, by focusing on a logic of information, it was easy for Business Week in 1975 to predict that the "paperless office" was close. Five years later, one futurist was firmly insisting that "making paper copies of anything" was "primitive." [14] Yet printers and copiers were running faster and faster for longer and longer periods over the following decade. Moreover, in the middle of the decade, the fax rose to become an essential paper-based piece of office equipment. Inevitably, this too was seen as a breach of good taste. Another analyst snorted that the merely useful fax "is a serious blemish on the information landscape, a step backward, whose ramifications will be felt for a long time." [15]

But the fax holds on. Rather like the pencil - whose departure was predicted in 1938 by the New York Times in the face of ever more sophisticated typewriters - the fax, the copier, and paper documents refuse to be dismissed. [16] People find them useful. Paper, as we argue in chapter 7, has wonderful properties - properties that lie beyond information, helping people work, communicate, and think together.

If only a logic of information, rather than the logic of humanity, is taken into account, then all these other aspects remain invisible. And futurists, while raging against the illogic of humankind and the primitive preferences that lead it astray, will continue to tell us where we ought to go. By taking more account of people and a little less of information, they might instead tell us where we are going, which would be more difficult but also more helpful.

[May 21, 2000] March 2000 Taking the Crunch Out of Crunch Time

Whether you call it crunch mode, ship mode or "death-march" project management, mandatory overtime is a standard industry practice. When a software development project begins to slip schedule or is faced with near-impossible delivery demands, the formulaic response is to get people to work longer hours. Before long, the project is in constant crisis, keeping people hunched over their keyboards until all hours of the night and during the weekends.

There are many ways to justify mandatory overtime. Sometimes you estimate projects incorrectly and rely on overtime to compensate for bad budgeting or bad planning. Aiming to meet unrealistic delivery dates, you push your people to their limits.

But there are alternatives to mandatory overtime, including choosing to work differently and changing the work to be completed. Understanding what precipitates the downward spiral into constant overtime will help clarify your options.

I'm Sooo Tired …

Looking at his project schedule, a manager we'll call Peter sighed and thought, "We're not going to make it. We're supposed to freeze the code in two weeks, test for another four weeks and then ship. We can't be late on this project or we'll all lose our bonuses. Wait, I know—I'll get everyone to work overtime! We'll bring in dinners, and maybe even breakfasts. We'll do anything, as long as we can ship this product within two months."

Peter's staff hunkered down and heroically completed the project, putting in many hours of overtime, including nights and weekends. When they finished the project, senior management requested another project with a just-maybe-possible release date. This time the project team worked three months of overtime to make the release date. At the end of that project, a couple of people quit, but Peter and the rest of the team stayed on.

During the next year, Peter and his project team staggered from project to project, never quite doing things the way they wanted to, always in crisis mode. By the time they had released two more versions of the product, the entire original project team, including Peter, had quit. Now the company was in trouble. No one on the newly hired staff understood the product, and shortcuts taken by the original project team left the code and internal documentation indecipherable.

Most experienced managers have seen such a project death spiral. Some project managers believe they can achieve impossible deadlines just by getting people to work harder and longer hours. In fact, some management teams never learn how to prevent lurching from project to project. Their unending refrain is: "We're in a crunch. We need to stay focused and keep the pressure on."

Slow Slogging

In reality, mandatory overtime rarely helps an organization complete its projects faster. More frequently, mandatory overtime contributes to staff burnout, turnover and to higher costs in future development.

You may honestly believe that mandated overtime is helping your staff get the work done. More likely, however, you are actually encountering slow progress, as your programmers are creating more defects and much of the work that was done late at night fails to stand up to the critical light of day. If you are considering imposing mandatory overtime, first observe your project, then consider whether there are better solutions for the problem of insufficient time.

Does progress sometimes seem achingly slow, despite the long hours of work? It may be that your developers are exhausted. Over time, with too much overtime, people can get too tired to think well or to do a good job.

Fatigue builds up in many ways. Some begin to lose their social skills, becoming more irritable and difficult to handle. Some lose their problem-solving skills and start creating more problems in their code than they solve. Some people become disgusted and cynically put in their "face-time" without doing much useful work. When such telltale signs of team exhaustion appear, the overtime people are working can be making your project even later. It may be best to give everyone some time off and to return to normal workweeks.

[Mar.16, 2000] Agents that Reduce Work and Information Overload - Page 1

[Mar.16, 2000] Information Overload Permission not to know

In a session of an hour and a half I and others explored this idea of "permission to not know". Our discussion ranged over several important questions, without necessarily providing answers. Some of the questions we pondered were:

[Mar.16, 2000] Change and Information Overload negative effects

It seems that the biggest problem facing present-day society is not that there is too little progress, but rather too much of it. Our mind, physiology nor social structures seem fit to cope with such a rate of change and such an amount of new information. Unfortunately, change, complexity and information overload are abstract phenomena, which are difficult to grasp. Therefore, few people have as yet understood that they contribute to the anxiety they feel. When trying to explain their vague feelings of dissatisfaction, they will rather look for more easily recognizable causes, such as unemployment, pollution, crime, corruption or immigration. These phenomena, which have become much more visible because of the attention they get from the media, play the role of scapegoats: they are blamed for the lack of quality of life which people experience, while being only tangentially related to it. This reinforces an atmosphere of gloom and doom.

See also:
Information overload in the HotBot directory

Information Overload Fighting data asphyxiation is difficult but possible

So what is to be done? The situation is not at all hopeless. Just as we require food, we similarly need information. The critical thing to remember is that we still have control over the information in our lives. Following are some suggestions on how to exercise that control in the different areas of our day. Overall, the maxim to live by is, "decrease quantity, increase quality."


  1. At the office


    • Be careful with your phone time. Don't tolerate sitting on perma-hold, listening to elevator music and even more stupid radio commercials. Leave a short, efficient message which indicates precisely what action you want taken and move on. Remember: when in doubt, hit 0 for the operator. A recent Reuters survey found that 20% of all voice-mail time is spent fumbling through menus.
    • Reduce paper. An old boss of mine told me to touch a piece of paper only once. Either use and file it or toss it in the recycle bin. To help facilitate this, switch to a fax/modem instead of a regular fax machine. There is no paper involved, and the "delete" key really can be your best friend.
    • Get organized. CorelCENTRAL or Microsoft's Outlook are good examples of utilities which will structure your time, clear your desk of neon sticky notes, and maybe even consolidate your fax and e-mail functions. Also check out 3M's electronic Post-It program, a marvelous jewel which will do wonders to clean your desk.
    • Keep meetings short, sweet, and focused. Make it known from the outset what your time limitations are and confirm beforehand the presence of a constructive agenda. I can't count the number of precious home hours I've lost to a company-bought pizza and managerial meandering.


  2. At home


    • Kill your television -- or at least make it hard to use. Some families keep just one TV and leave it in the closet except for occasional viewing. Before sitcom stupor sets in, ask yourself, "Is this a good use of my time?" Even television news is mostly fluff designed more to sell commercials than to educate the public. Weather and commercials now account for half of each hour's broadcast. The U.S. Department of Health and Human services has published findings that TV might actually cause learning disorders (really?!), so try instating a family reading time instead.
    • Keep your phone number unlisted to reduce solicitation calls.
    • Sick of junk mail? Contact the Direct Marketing Association (P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale NY 11735) with your exact home address along with all the permutations on your name currently in use by junk mailers. Ask to be removed from all the direct mail lists with which they are associated.
    • Prioritize your phone time. It's taken years, but friends and family have learned to call me with planned discussion items and then not take it personally when I shove the call to a conclusion.
    • Develop a hobby. Many of us feel that we don't have the time or talent for a hobby, or maybe that was something our parents did -- and God knows we don't want to be like them. A hobby, however, besides having its own inherent rewards (not to mention a second possible source of income) will take time from otherwise wasteful brain drains like TV. Exercise can be viewed as a hobby. It may take an hour out of your nightly rerun ritual, but think of the extra 20 years of health you gain on the backside.
  3. On the Net


    • E-mail can be a virus in its own right. Only drop your address (especially on Usenet) when essential, because software robots will see it and automatically add you to marketing lists. Respond to junk e-mail messages indicating that you wish to be removed from the mailing list or else you will contact the sender's Internet provider (usually Also, you can usually tell which messages are worth your time just by scanning the header. Dump the extraneous ones. Respond to non-important messages as infrequently as possible since correspondence tends to increase exponentially. Finally, take 30 minutes to download and install a good spam filter from Tucows.
    • Newsgroups can consume your life. I used to lurk and contribute in half a dozen groups. Today, I only visit Usenet for research, targeting specific answers and ignoring all other conversation threads.
    • Beware getting stuck in that tangled Web. The inescapable banner advertising is bad enough, but with 70+ million pages to muddle through, every Web user should master effective search techniques. I recommend Take ten minutes and learn the Boolean search terms. 10,000 hits may sound like a gold mine, but odds are that with a narrowed search you'll find your best nuggets in the first 10.
    • Remember the library! When doing research, you may save innumerable hours forsaking the Web altogether and logging into your local library's server. Many counties (including Multnomah and Washington) provide free access to Magazines Online (MO), a searchable, up-to-date database of hundreds of periodical articles. MO often alleviates the need for costly magazine subscriptions, endless Web searches, and, at the very least, a lot of photocopying. In researching this article, the Web was virtually useless while MO supplied over a dozen valuable references.
    • Use your printer. I know this conflicts with my earlier statements about saving paper, but it's so easy to become distracted by enticing link after link. When you find information that you need, print it. This saves both on reading time and the need to find the page again later. Of course, if you have the discipline to set up effective hard drive directories, saving such Web pages is a better solution. Simply saving a page won't allow you to keep graphics, though. I recommend using a program like Folio's Web Retriever, which not only will save a page's graphics but archive an entire site.


[Nov.29, 1999] Computer Eyestrain Journal - by Eye2Eye - All About Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) & Video Display Terminals (VDTs), Eye Strain


[Oct.14, 1999] - Featured Articles  Obsession - October 11th, 1999  by Matt Michie

Jake had lost himself sifting through source code, searching for another elusive bug, when Fred broke through the trance. When Fred wanted your attention, he usually got it one way or another. In this case, he jumped up onto the desk scattering printouts across the room.

"What the...?"

Jake started, and there was Fred gazing up at him with those pitiful feline eyes. Damn, he had been so engrossed in the work that he'd forgotten to feed the cat again.

Jake made his way to the kitchen. He hoped he still had a bit of cat food left, it had been awhile since he'd been out to grab groceries. That was usually something Kate had taken care of. It wasn't until she had left that Jake truly appreciated how much she really did for him. Jake had never known a girl with so much patience, but apparently even Kate had her limits. The long hours at work and his recent obsession took quite a toll on their relationship.

[July 10, 1999] Slate - Webhead The Love Bloat. By Andrew Shuman Hurrah for enormous software programs, filled with useless features, that don't run very fast.

A day doesn't go by that I don't read in the press ... or some Microsoft customer sidles up to me ... or even my girlfriend says, "Hey, Shuman, why is Microsoft software so bloated, so full of junk, sucking up megs of space on my hard drive, hogging memory, and taking forever to load! The toolbar buttons look like they were lifted from the cockpit of an F-16." My grouchy critics are ramping up again as the very large Office 2000 software suite hits the stores: "Shuman, why don't you and the other boy developers at Microsoft write some trim and tight code?"  Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. The problem with software today is not that it is bloated. The problem is that it's not bloated enough!

Bloat is the American dream: bigger, better, and everywhere all at once. Supersize it! From VCRs to food processors to Ford Expeditions, industry has historically provided consumers with features to have, not necessarily to use. How many of you have programmed your VCR? Minced carrots with your Cuisinart? Or gone off-roading in your SUV? Why should software be any different? Do you really think software developers add features just for fun, like some cackling tormentor? If only that were the case. Sadly, it is you, the customer, who demands bloat, forever clamoring for new features. Software companies take your wish lists seriously, and then make them happen. It's like the violence-in-the-media argument: We hate it, but we buy it.

[June 28, 1999] Open directory: Reference Knowledge Management Information Overload

[June 28, 1999] Coping with Information overload

This presentation looks at the reasons for information overload, gives advice on coping with overload and shows how Mailbase can help you to manage overload from mailing lists. It concentrates on e-mail and mailing lists, though the problems and solutions can be applicable to other media such as the web.

The presentation should last about twenty to thirty minutes, includes speaker's notes and covers

Although this is a general presentation, it may be tailored to an individual audience providing the copyright Mailbase notice is retained.

It is available in the following formats:

[PowerPoint 7] [PowerPoint 4] [HTML]

[June 28, 1999] The Clever Project

The tremendous growth in the price-performance of networking and storage has fueled the explosive growth of the web. The amount of information easily accessible from the desktop has dramatically increased by several orders of magnitude in the last few years, and shows no signs of abating. Users of the web are being confronted with the consequent information overload problem. It can be exceedingly difficult to locate resources that are both high-quality and relevant to their information needs. Traditional automated methods for locating information are easily overwhelmed by low-quality and unrelated content. Thus, the second generation of search engines will have to have effective methods for focusing on the most authoritative among these documents. The rich structure implicit in the hyperlinks among Web documents offers a simple, and effective, means to deal with many of these problems. The CLEVER search engine incorporates several algorithms that make use of hyperlink structure for discovering high-quality information on the Web.

Recommended Links

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Top articles



***** Informing Ourselves To Death

The great English playwright and social philosopher George Bernard Shaw once remarked that all professions are conspiracies against the common folk. He meant that those who belong to elite trades -- physicians, lawyers, teachers, and scientists -- protect their special status by creating vocabularies that are incomprehensible to the general public. This process prevents outsiders from understanding what the profession is doing and why -- and protects the insiders from close examination and criticism. Professions, in other words, build forbidding walls of technical gobbledegook over which the prying and alien eye cannot see.

We may well ask ourselves, then, is there something that the masters of computer technology think they are doing for us which they and we may have reason to regret? I believe there is, and it is suggested by the title of my talk, "Informing Ourselves to Death." In the time remaining, I will try to explain what is dangerous about the computer, and why. And I trust you will be open enough to consider what I have to say. Now, I think I can begin to get at this by telling you of a small experiment I have been conducting, on and off, for the past several years. There are some people who describe the experiment as an exercise in deceit and exploitation but I will rely on your sense of humor to pull me through.

Here's how it works: It is best done in the morning when I see a colleague who appears not to be in possession of a copy of The New York Times. "Did you read The Times this morning?," I ask. If the colleague says yes, there is no experiment that day. But if the answer is no, the experiment can proceed. "You ought to look at Page 23," I say. "There's a fascinating article about a study done at Harvard University." "Really? What's it about?" is the usual reply. My choices at this point are limited only by my imagination. But I might say something like this: "Well, they did this study to find out what foods are best to eat for losing weight, and it turns out that a normal diet supplemented by chocolate eclairs, eaten six times a day, is the best approach. It seems that there's some special nutrient in the eclairs -- encomial dioxin -- that actually uses up calories at an incredible rate."

Another possibility, which I like to use with colleagues who are known to be health conscious is this one: "I think you'll want to know about this," I say. "The neuro-physiologists at the University of Stuttgart have uncovered a connection between jogging and reduced intelligence. They tested more than 1200 people over a period of five years, and found that as the number of hours people jogged increased, there was a corresponding decrease in their intelligence. They don't know exactly why but there it is."

I'm sure, by now, you understand what my role is in the experiment: to report something that is quite ridiculous -- one might say, beyond belief. Let me tell you, then, some of my results: Unless this is the second or third time I've tried this on the same person, most people will believe or at least not disbelieve what I have told them. Sometimes they say: "Really? Is that possible?" Sometimes they do a double-take, and reply, "Where'd you say that study was done?" And sometimes they say, "You know, I've heard something like that."

Now, there are several conclusions that might be drawn from these results, one of which was expressed by H. L. Mencken fifty years ago when he said, there is no idea so stupid that you can't find a professor who will believe it. This is more of an accusation than an explanation but in any case I have tried this experiment on non-professors and get roughly the same results. Another possible conclusion is one expressed by George Orwell -- also about 50 years ago -- when he remarked that the average person today is about as naive as was the average person in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages people believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what.

And something else, which once was our friend, turned against us, as well. I refer to information. There was a time when information was a resource that helped human beings to solve specific and urgent problems of their environment. It is true enough that in the Middle Ages, there was a scarcity of information but its very scarcity made it both important and usable. This began to change, as everyone knows, in the late 15th century when a goldsmith named Gutenberg, from Mainz, converted an old wine press into a printing machine, and in so doing, created what we now call an information explosion. Forty years after the invention of the press, there were printing machines in 110 cities in six different countries; 50 years after, more than eight million books had been printed, almost all of them filled with information that had previously not been available to the average person. Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since.

But what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos. If I may take my own country as an example, here is what we are faced with: In America, there are 260,000 billboards; 11,520 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 video outlets for renting tapes; 362 million TV sets; and over 400 million radios. There are 40,000 new book titles published every year (300,000 world-wide) and every day in America 41 million photographs are taken, and just for the record, over 60 billion pieces of advertising junk mail come into our mail boxes every year. Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one's status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it.

And there are two reasons we do not know what to do with it. First, as I have said, we no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don't know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives. Second, we have directed all of our energies and intelligence to inventing machinery that does nothing but increase the supply of information. As a consequence, our defenses against information glut have broken down; our information immune system is inoperable. We don't know how to filter it out; we don't know how to reduce it; we don't know to use it. We suffer from a kind of cultural AIDS.

Now, into this situation comes the computer. The computer, as we know, has a quality of universality, not only because its uses are almost infinitely various but also because computers are commonly integrated into the structure of other machines. Therefore it would be fatuous of me to warn against every conceivable use of a computer. But there is no denying that the most prominent uses of computers have to do with information. When people talk about "information sciences," they are talking about computers -- how to store information, how to retrieve information, how to organize information. The computer is an answer to the questions, how can I get more information, faster, and in a more usable form? These would appear to be reasonable questions. But now I should like to put some other questions to you that seem to me more reasonable. Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information? If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U.S., will it happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? Does racism in South Africa exist because of a lack of information? If criminals roam the streets of New York City, do they do so because of a lack of information?

Or, let us come down to a more personal level: If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?

I believe you will have to concede that what ails us, what causes us the most misery and pain -- at both cultural and personal levels -- has nothing to do with the sort of information made accessible by computers. The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most. The computer is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most needed to confront -- spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future. Does one blame the computer for this? Of course not. It is, after all, only a machine. But it is presented to us, with trumpets blaring, as at this conference, as a technological messiah.

Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better, religion better, politics better, our minds better -- best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense, and only the young or the ignorant or the foolish could believe it. I said a moment ago that computers are not to blame for this. And that is true, at least in the sense that we do not blame an elephant for its huge appetite or a stone for being hard or a cloud for hiding the sun. That is their nature, and we expect nothing different from them. But the computer has a nature, as well. True, it is only a machine but a machine designed to manipulate and generate information. That is what computers do, and therefore they have an agenda and an unmistakable message.

The message is that through more and more information, more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our problems. And so all the brilliant young men and women, believing this, create ingenious things for the computer to do, hoping that in this way, we will become wiser and more decent and more noble. And who can blame them? By becoming masters of this wondrous technology, they will acquire prestige and power and some will even become famous. In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy. Imagine what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people -- perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.

As things stand now, the geniuses of computer technology will give us Star Wars, and tell us that is the answer to nuclear war. They will give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to self-knowledge. They will give us instantaneous global communication, and tell us this is the way to mutual understanding. They will give us Virtual Reality and tell us this is the answer to spiritual poverty. But that is only the way of the technician, the fact-mongerer, the information junkie, and the technological idiot.

Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." Here is what Goethe told us: "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words." And here is what Socrates told us: "The unexamined life is not worth living." And here is what the prophet Micah told us: "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?" And I can tell you -- if I had the time (although you all know it well enough) -- what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us. It is all the same: There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.

Reuters Business Briefing - Information Overload WADDINGTON, P. Dying for information: an investigation of information overload in the UK and world-wide. 1996. London: Reuters Business Information. A non-conclusive study that can be easily critiqued, but still provide an interesting observations.

During the survey, one in four of over 1,300 managers surveyed, admitted to actually suffering ill health as a result of the amount of information they handle. Ironically, half agreed high levels of information were required in order to perform effectively. In the survey, 48% of managers predicted the Internet would play a primary role in aggravating the problem further in 1998.
Effects of Information Overload

According to the survey, the results of `Infoglut` include:

Effects of Information Overload (continued)

Psychologist Dr.David Lewis, an internationally known Psychologist, Consultant and Lecturer, analysed the findings of the survey and commented:

"Information Fatigue Syndrome – having too much information – can be as dangerous as having too little. Among other problems, it can lead to a paralysis of analysis, making it far harder to find the right solutions or make the best decisions."

 Details of survey findings

The 350 page report, entitled:

`Dying for Information? An investigation into the effects of information overload in the U.K and World-wide`,

Is based on a survey of 1,313 junior, middle and senior managers in the U.K, U.S, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

 Key Findings

Key Findings (continued)

Information Overload  -- a short except from Computer Life

Remember when you thought cell phones, pagers, and laptop computers would make your life less complicated? Instead, technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. We are faced daily with more information than the average person in the seventeenth century dealt with in an entire lifetime. So what, short of throwing your computer off the roof and moving into a cave, can you do to survive? What you have to do is practice triage. For doctors, triage is the system of prioritizing patients in an emergency situation to ensure medical care of the greatest benefit to the largest number. For you, information triage means prioritizing, delegating, and just letting some things slide. A doctor wouldn't set the arm of a patient before attending to a gunshot victim just because the guy with the broken arm got there first. You have to assess your priorities and then take actions that allow you to get the most done.

Knowledge Management or Information Overload

Knowledge Management has rapidly become one of the key strategies which no organisation wishing to gain or keep competitive advantage over its rivals can afford to ignore. There are differing interpretations of 'knowledge' and organisations have implemented it differently, but there is general acceptance that Knowledge Management is not just Information Management under a new guise, but is something more that depends on new enabling technologies to make it possible. I believe that special libraries should be playing a key role in any implementation of Knowledge Management, as their information professionals already have the skills and expertise needed. DERA Information Resources Group (formerly Library & Information Services and the Defence Research Information Centre) has been closely involved in DERA's Knowledge Management strategy, and our experiences may be helpful to others seeking similar involvement in their own organisations.

Casting an Information Net

Fifty years ago, presidential science adviser Vannevar Bush accurately predicted the rise of personal computers, information storage and search tools, and electronic commerce in the article "As We May Think," published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It has become one of the most widely cited scientific articles of the century.

Bush, who oversaw all U.S. wartime science efforts (including the Manhattan Project), worried that increasing specialization would soon stall scientific progress. Noting that "Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it," Bush proposed a solution called the Memex. He envisioned "a device in which an individual stores all his books, records and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility."

Search services have unified what was once a sprawl of uncharted fiefdoms on the Internet. But despite advances in processing and storage, the underlying approach has remained essentially unchanged for years: Users enter a few descriptive words and hope those words are used in relevant documents. It's fine for searching through a collection of a few thousand items, but punch in "travel" on Digital Equipment Corp.'s AltaVista search engine, and you'll get more than 7 million possible answers. That's noise, not information.

The explosion of data available on the Web is aggravating the problem. By late 1997, there were more than 640,000 sites and 100 million pages on the Web, and the number continues to double every six months. Without fundamentally new approaches, the number of documents returned by a generic search engine will grow at the same rate.

Information Overload   By David Brodwin, Sandra Bernardi  Upside magazine

The information age has lived up to its name: It takes ages to sift through all the information that is now available to organizations. The overabundance of information has created a time-consuming and difficult challenge for busy executives and professionals searching for that key piece of data in an increasingly competitive world.

Content owners (primary publishers like McGraw-Hill, CMP Publications, Ziff-Davis and others) want to extract as much value from their ownership as possible, and not give away half or more of the revenue to the information repackagers that now stand between them and the end-customer. As the balance between print-based revenue and electronic revenue shifts, primary publishers are scrutinizing these issues more seriously than they did in the past, when electronic revenue was meager compared with the robust print business.

Designing the Linux for the Masses

HarperEdge Data Smog

It's Monday morning, and you're just getting in to work. You pass the pile of faxes on the fax machine, then grab the stack of mail from your mailbox, wondering why you still get so much paper in this electronic era. At your desk, you note your company's stock price as it scrolls by on your screensaver, click some Web links to get last night's sports scores and this morning's headlines, and, finally, check your email. There are more than 100 messages. Some are useless marketing spams; some are mildly interesting newsletters; and buried near the end of the queue, there's an urgent message from your boss. If only you had a faster modem at home, you could have been in touch over the weekend and avoided the backlog...

Welcome to the information glut. According to Data Smog, a new book by David Shenk, information overload is more than an inconvenience; it's responsible for higher levels of stress, decreasing educational standards, and numerous other social problems. Traditional mass media are partially to blame, but the Internet--with its vast storehouse of knowledge and promise of instant communication--contributes to the avalanche. While the book's alarmism may seem a bit extreme, we've all experienced the paralysis that comes with having too much information, too many options, and no time to make a rational decision, let alone take a one-hour lunch.

So how can you cut through all the junk? We can't turn off your fax machine or convince you to throw out your cellular phone. However, if you want to get the most out of your computer and the Internet--without being buried by too much information--read on.

Information Overload -- Interesting IEEE Article

On the 3rd December 1997 a one day colloquium was held at The Institute of Electrical Engineers in London to address the problems of information overload. The primary objective of the colloquium is to consider how to overcome this problem from a technical perspective, that is examining a number of I.T. stategies such as Data Warehousing and the use of Intelligent Agents.

A paper entitled, "Information Overload - myth or reality?", suggests that there may be alternative non-technical reasons why information overload exists. The paper briefly examine the rise in status of information, the stresses of modern working life, the reality and consequences of information overload.

Source searching; A model of human research behaviour for a web crawler. by Andrew Mortimer

Continual increasing growth of the Internet has allowed it to become a potential valuable resource, available to all that are able to access it. Massive growth and the sheer scale of this resource is causing its potential value to be greatly impaired. Information overload is a common daily consequence of the scale of the Internet, and will surely contribute to a degrading of its potential.To be of any value to the user, the Internet surely has to emulate some human characteristics of Information finding, and add intelligence to data mining techniques. Development work undertaken to produce human methods of Information finding has offered an idea of what is possible. Meanwhile, attention is being paid to the problems brought upon the Internet by itself. The sheer nature of the resource is Inflating its own self depreciation; profit and bad practice are intensifying problems such as Information overload, and allowing a fair search to become more and more rare.

Using the Internet is arguably a great test of patience. Chances are that the information is obtainable – but at the price of wait time.

[Feb 2, 1999 ] In search of knowledge

Professors at Harvard Business School are famous for their case study style of teaching, in which they shine a bright, critical light on real-world companies and their strategies. Until recently, however, HBS itself easily could have served as an object lesson in how not to manage massive amounts of unstructured data. After years of recording classroom lectures, HBS and its users were awash in a sea of thousands of hours of unstructured videotape. Though available to researchers, the videotape brain trust went essentially untapped, since users couldn't easily navigate the content to locate relevant information.

"Nothing was indexed or easily accessed," recalls Larry Bouthillier, head of multimedia production at HBS. "We were able to do some keyword searches using transcriptions of the audio, but it was hard for people to find stuff that we didn't know we had."

Bouthillier's dilemma is shared by hundreds of companies, many of which have been struggling for years to create enterprise data warehouses designed to give top decision makers access to all the data generated by key operational systems. After finally getting those large decision-support systems into production, however, these companies are finding that the new data warehouses hold, at most, between 10 percent to 15 percent of all the data used daily across an enterprise. The other 85 percent to 90 percent is unstructured data--documents, images, text files, video, audio and other types of content that don't fit neatly into the rows, columns and access methods used to manage most data generated by transaction-oriented systems. Yet, for many companies, including HBS, that unstructured information can be every bit as important as the data from traditional operational systems such as financial and manufacturing applications.

As a result, many IT managers are hunting for tools that can manage unstructured data in much the same robust way with which they are already able to manage structured data. That means capturing it in electronic form, checking it for quality, indexing it in ways that allow users to find pertinent information quickly and providing easy access to it from the Web.

"What's needed is a way to help users get through the huge overload of unstructured data that already exists in their organizations," says Ralph Sprague, a professor in decision sciences at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. "We need a lot more than keyword search engines and document management systems. We need a way to catalog and understand the semantically rich content that exists in unstructured data such as images, video and documents."

The good news is that IT managers are finding a wide range of tools that do just that. A multitude of vendors--including makers of content management systems, search engines and even data warehouses--are beginning to extend their products to support advanced management of unstructured data types. In some companies, such tools are becoming the foundation for knowledge management. But there's also some bad news: Many of these tools are still immature. As such, they're often narrowly focused on one type of unstructured data such as documents or video. Many also lack support for critical standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language).

Information overload

Even so, this new class of software is attracting the attention of IT managers anxious to provide users with a way to navigate through a vast and growing sea of unstructured data. HBS' Bouthillier is one. Three years ago, Bouthillier began making videotapes of the school's lectures available to researchers via streaming video running on five Sun Microsystems Inc. SPARC servers and accessed through a switched Ethernet network. When that setup failed to deliver easy access, Bouthillier took another stab at getting all of that video under control.

His solution: Video Cataloger, an indexing and retrieval engine from Virage Inc., of San Mateo, Calif., that, in effect, lets users query large amounts of video data by subject or image type. Video Cataloger scans video, looking for hints about its content based on displayed text information, audio, time codes and images. Then the product creates an index that can be used to search for specific video content. Hits are shown in the form of freeze-framed images of storyboards of the video.

Bouthillier has begun to allow students and researchers to query the video data over the school's intranet from Web browsers. The only drawback: It takes time to scan each video into the system.

And HBS isn't the only organization being overwhelmed with unstructured data. Far from going away, documents, text files, video and other types of unstructured data are proliferating in most organizations. Gartner Group Inc., of Stamford, Conn., estimates that U.S. companies produce 5.5 billion documents annually. And most of them -- 59 percent -- are still being accessed and retrieved manually.

... In response, many organizations are attempting to build portals on their intranets that, among other things, can act as central repositories for documents, images and other types of unstructured data. That's what professional audio workstation maker Digidesign, a division of Avid Technology Inc., is doing. In the process of attempting to get ISO 9002 quality certification, managers at the 300-person global company early this year discovered that it was practically impossible to find all the information about how Digidesign goes about building its products.

"Most of it was located on a multitude of servers in dozens of different file and security formats," says Bill Schwartz, Digidesign's operations project manager, in Palo Alto, Calif. "At a minimum, we needed to get the documents that described our policies and procedures into one place so that anyone in the company, anywhere in the world, could access it. And we were talking here about thousands of documents."

Avoiding Information Overload

In the late 1970s, Air Force pilot Colonel John Boyd wanted to understand why US fighter aircraft consistently won air combat engagements against aircraft that had better maneuverability. His observations led to what is now known as the Boyd Cycle. Conventional wisdom dictated that aircraft with better maneuverability, given similar speed capabilities, should generally win most close engagements. However, this was not happening in actual air-to-air engagements. US fighters, despite wider turn radii, consistently beat opponent aircraft and pilots. Based upon an analysis of the airframes and their capabilities, Boyd came upon a subtle conclusion. It was not the turn radius that is the decisive factor in air combat, it is the ability to see the enemy and the speed with which control inputs reached control surfaces which turned the tide in singular engagements. Boyd’s hypothesis was that US fighters were winning because they could complete a "loop" of action faster than enemy aircraft. Boyd’s loop occurred in four distinct steps:

l Observe: Our pilots could see the enemy better and more completely due to the cockpit design of our aircraft, which had great visibility.

l Orient: Since our pilots saw the enemy first, they could react, or orient themselves toward the enemy faster.

l Decide: After seeing and instinctually reacting with an initial orientation, our pilots’ level of training allowed them to decide faster on their next combat maneuver.

l Act: When US pilots input control movements to their aircraft, their inputs were more rapidly converted into control surface movements, with the resultant faster initiation of a desired maneuver.

Based on these observations, Boyd’s OODA model of air-to-air combat was valid and useful to the Air Force. The model worked and accurately described that particular aspect of conflict. However, after Boyd’s presentations on the OODA loop gained Air Force-wide acceptance, they also worked their way into the US ground force’s inventory through a series of conceptual briefings given by Boyd and through the maneuver warfare writings of William F. Lind.

Work overload

[Nov. 5, 1999] NetSlaves ~ Usually ships in 2-3 days
Bill Lessard, Steve Baldwin / Hardcover / Published 1999 Our Price: $13.97 ~ You Save: $5.98 (30%) Average Customer Review: 5 out of 5 stars
Prudloe Vensigian from Deep Run Mobile Home Park, Maryland , November 1, 1999 5 out of 5 stars These guys are nuts, and that's great! Oh yeah! From reading Netslaves it's easy to tell that these guys have been on the front lines of the new media wars for a long, long time. Not in the Generals' tents, but out where the layoff bullets fly and talented employees are more often rewarded by watching their kiss-ass co-workers get promoted over their heads than by anything else. If you are in, or want to get into, the fast-paced Internet go-go economy, you must read this book. No, you're not the only one who has found (or will find) that the pot of gold at the end of the Internet rainbow has already been emptied by investment bankers and other leeches, and that your share is just big enough to rent a studio apartmen, pay your ISP bills, and buy takeout pan pizzas every few days. I create Web site content for a living, so I live what these guys write, and dammit, I still love my work as much as ever despite the fact that doing the scut work behind the Internet is just as horrid as Steve and Bill say it is. As the late songwriter and newspaper humorist Sylvia Miller put it, "If misery loves company, then you're the one for me. You like to cry into your beer, wine always makes me shed a tear."
Slashdot Book Reviews NetSlaves -- pretty naive review,  but good discussion
If you read newspapers, books, or follow Net-business coverage on TV, you might well think work on the Net is mostly about the billionaires who found Hotmail or Yahoo or Netscape, or the clean, benefit-laced, campus-like work environments they provide. You'd have no way of knowing the much more pervasive and unnerving reality: for every one of those there's a zillion companies that come into the world still-born, fail miserably, make and sell crummy stuff, and hire countless miserable, exploited, harassed and burned-out programmers, techies, geeks and nerds.

Baldwin and Lessard are combat veterans of the Net, both in terms of writing and personal experience. They are also long-standing Truth Tellers.

In addition to writing about computing for a number of magazines and websites, they also run the guerilla website NetSlaves, a running testimonial to real life for many in the hi-tech workplace.

"NetSlaves" is a terrific extension of the site, one of the few books to come off of a website that really works as a book. Lessard and Baldwin have a powerful story to tell, and they do it with a lot of punch. "NetSlaves" ought to be handed out to every graduate of every tech school, and given to every new employee of every Net company.

Baldwin and Lessard say their grand "pre-alpha" statement about the Nature of Net-Slavery is this:

"Technology has changed, but human nature hasn't. Whether it's the Gold Rush of 1849 or the Web Rush of l999, people are people. More often than not, they're miserable, nasty, selfish creatures, driven by vanity and greed, doing whatever they can to get ahead, even if it means stepping on the person next to them, crushing the weak, and destroying themselves in the process."

The authors don't have a particularly high regard for many forms of Net work, which they lambaste as the New Media Caste System, but they care about Net workers, and the book is curiously affectionate, even loving about them, as well as a hoot to read.

Both concede that one of their purposes in writing "NetSlaves" is to have the book serve as a quasi-historical, quasi-anthropological reflection of a particular moment in the culture.

Although the tone of "NetSlaves" is informal and funny, the point is pretty serious. "NetSlaves" has done what legions of reporters and authors have so far failed to do: paint a truthful picture of about the new nature of work in the techno-centered world.

For all of the media blabber about Net commerce and hi-tech startups, life in this fast lane can be brutal - insane hours, almost no employee-employer loyalty, greed and moral cowardice, help-desk geeks driven mad by enraged customers, back-stabbing, savage pressure, competiveness and the many resultant neuroses from all of the above.

Baldwin and Lessard make no pretense of objectivity. They write with almost ferocious authority and persuasiveness. They describe themselves as "two angry, cranky bastards out for blood" on behalf of their exhausted selves and the countless burnouts, geniuses, thieves, opportunists, workaholics and losers they've encountered along the way.

"NetSlaves" gives us a whole new language for the villains and back-stabbers who make up the hi-tech workplace. Particular venom is reserved for the "Fry Cooks," the "get it done at all costs" project people of the New Media Caste System. (There's also the "Garbagemen," the workers who have to get servers up and running when they crash).

My favorite chapter is about the "Cab Drivers," the haunted and hunted itinerant Web freelancers who design sites, followed closely by "Gold Diggers and Gigolos," a scathing portrait of the ambitious, night-crawling, hard-partying, butt-kissing movers and shakers and wannabees of hi-tech work world.

"Most Web sites are designed by itinerant, restless young people who have given up the constraints of working for one company in particular, in exchange for the self-determination of pursuing their own path. The rationale is that they can earn a higher hourly rate and pick and choose their projects.

"The reality, however," write Lessard and Baldwin, "is that these Cab Drivers have to constantly hustle for work and their passengers, or clients, who are also cash-crunched, are notorious for skipping out on their fares. Added to this is the lack of health benefits that Cab Drivers face - a plight which has forced many to simply neglect themselves." This is a world in which workers are terrified or despondent when forced to take a few weeks off, convinced they'll fall behind forever.

"NetSlaves" succeeds wonderfully in its goal to tell the truth about a particular culture at a critical juncture in time. It is, in fact one of the few telling looks inside the new kinds of workplaces springing up in the hi-tech, global economy. Workers beware.


[July 27, 1999] SlashdotThe High Tech Sweatshop -- comments are much more interesting than the story. The latter  is kind of suspect ;-)

Its 4:30 am on a Friday and I just finished the last Mountain Dew. We ran out of coffee hours ago, the remains of it now black sludge at the bottom of the pot. The buildings air conditioning went off sometime the previous night and its up to almost 90 degrees in the server room. The two volunteer hackers on the staff went home after 12 hours, leaving me and the sysadmin… 

This is a normal day for me. 

I‘m a systems engineer in the client services division of a network security software company. Basically what that means is that when networks break, I fix them. 

I am 22 years old, I make a large multiple of the national average salary, and if I cashed in my stock options I could buy a very nice house. I’m also sixty pounds overweight, I sleep an average of four hours a night, and I have several ulcers. I usually spend about 60 hours a week at the office, but I’m on call 24 hours a day seven days a week. If I was honest with myself Id probably say I worked about one hundred hours last week. This is a normal life for someone working in this industry.

We live in a world today that runs on information. And people want all of it now. When was the last time you actually wrote out a personal letter to someone, on paper, in pen? Why bother when E-mail is so much faster and easier? But what goes on behind the scenes when you hit the “send” button? There are thousands of people out there just like me who have titles like “Network engineer” and “Systems administrator”. We keep that information flowing, and we get paid what seems like a lot of money to do it. If you’ve been in the market for a good network admin lately you know what I mean. The market is pushing the salary into the 100k+ plus range for someone with the necessary experience to handle even a relatively small network, never mind what the really large companies like State Farm insurance or Wells Fargo bank have.

I started work on this problem with the sysadmin on Thursday before the close of business, getting things set up, preparing for the changes etc… The company was switching internet service providers that night because the previous one hadn’t provided the level of service they needed. This entailed changing the IP addresses, and DNS configurations of every machine in the building, running three different operating systems, probably two hundred machines all told, then setting up the servers, routers, and switches necessary to get it all running. It’s a big job, but with six people working on it we figured we could get it done before start of business the next day. Normally you would do this kind of thing over a weekend, but the ISP could either do the changeover tonight, or wait till next week, and we needed to be online before Monday. 

Getting back to what happens when you press the send button. You expect the computer to send the message, and that the person it was sent to will receive it. What happens to the message then is an incredibly complex series of storage, sending, routing, switching, redirecting, forwarding and retrieving, that is all over in a fraction of a second, or at most a few minutes. But you don’t care how or why it gets there, only that it does, and this is all you should care about. After all you don’t have to know how your cars engine works in order to drive it right. But someone has to know in case it breaks. And when your email breaks you expect someone to fix it. It doesn’t matter what time it is, or where the message is being sent, you want it to get there now. 

Its now 8 am and the network is still down. We’ve managed to isolate a routing problem and are in the process of fixing it. The ISP gave us the wrong IP addresses and now we have to go back and redo all two hundred machines in the building. The router was crashing and we couldn’t figure out why. Two hours on the phone with the vendors support, and three levels of support engineer later we fix it. People are starting to come in to work and ask why they can’t get their email. The changeover process takes us about three hours and finally everyone has the right IP, but things still aren’t working right. A bunch of people use DHCP for their laptops and the DHCP people cant get out to the net. The CEO of the company is one of those people…

So what do we do? Well we hire people to take care of the network. And we give them benefits and pay like any normal employee. We also give them pagers, cell phones, a direct phone lines to their houses so that any time, any where, we can get them, because the network could go down, and we DEPEND on that network, and those people. This is where things go skew from the normal business model. 

All compensation is basically in exchange for time. The only thing humans have to give is their time. When I pay you a salary it is in exchange for me being able to use your abilities for a certain period of time every year. The assumption is that the more experienced or knowledgeable you are the more your time is worth. This works fine when you are being paid a wage, but salaried employees aren’t. They exist under the polite fiction that all their work can be done in a forty hour period every week, no matter how much work there is. We all know this isn’t the case of course. And when it comes to Systems administrators and network engineers that polite fiction isn’t so polite. In exchange for high salaries and large stock options the company owns you all day and all night, every day and every night. You are “Mission critical”. High salaries become an illusion because when it gets down to it your hourly rate isn’t much better than the assistant manager of the local Pep Boys. 

I finally went home at 1 that afternoon. I couldn’t stay awake any more and if I didn’t leave right then I wouldn’t have been able to drive home. The funny thing is I felt guilty for leaving. Things still weren’t working quite right, and I felt like I should have stayed until they were. Even funnier is that I volunteered for this. The only part of the job that I actually had to do was to change a few IP addresses and configure the firewall, but I thought I’d lend a hand, and I couldn’t do the firewall till everything else was working anyway. My wife hadn’t seen me in two and a half days, and I could barely give her a kiss when I walked through the door and collapsed on my bed. The SysAdmin was fired a few hours after I left. Back to work Monday morning.

From reader comments:

like furnace stokers (Score:2, Funny) by ( on Monday July 26, @06:57AM EDT (#2) (User Info) i sometimes liken system and network admin to being a coal stoker in the basement of a big building, just shoveling coal into the furnace 24/7 to keep the business above running.  punchline of your story is that they fired the (only?) full time system administrator. personal and professional info on homepage: Amen Brother (Score:1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 26, @06:58AM EDT (#3)

Been there. All I can suggest is that you make a serious effort to spend more time playing and less time working. When I left my last job, I had 8 weeks vacation accrued, and a real bad attitude. I took two months off working, and now I limit my work week to 50 hrs on regular weeks, and anytime I work more than that, I take off a day or half day in the following week.  This has really helped me be a lot nicer person overall (and my wife REALLY likes that). I have always met folks in high positions who DO appreciate my effort, and have thus always had stellar reviews and reccomedations for future employment.  Good luck, and stay sane.

[July 15, 1999] Information overload can be coupled with real overload, that is characteristic of startups:

 As one Slashdot reader put it (ArticlesHome Sweet Sweatshop):

They think that because they work 18 hours a day, neglect their home life, end up divorced, have kids that don't know them, and few real friends, they are "Heros". They gave their all, 110%. Guess what, for that 110%, you will get a watch and maybe a small pention when you retire. You will dye alone, and no one that ever worked with you will care. There is so much more to life than the grind. People who overwork themselves aren't heros, they are idiots...

Another reader stated about WEB-related jobs

I work in "the Industry" and telecommute from home (very small apartment on the 5th floor). I have 10+ people over me and a few below me, and I've never met any of them face to face -- I only know them by e-mail, though I work with them every day for 18+ hours, sleeping on a futon in between. Pay is good, but it's very isolated -- no human contact at all, and I get very tired of staring at the same Netscape, Emacs, and shell windows all day, every day. I go through 150+ ounces of dew and coke every day, and there's nothing directly outside but traffic and other buildings. Time pressure is also fairly high. Everything must always be done "within 24 hours" because that's the way the Web works, I guess. I'm getting fairly tired of working this way.

Another interesting quote:

You know, media companies aren't the only ones. ANY sort of internet startup, and I've worked for MORE than one, has so many unreasonable demands that it's absurd. And in my experience, most of it's the people in charge. I'm working for a startup now. Hating every minute of it. I'm expected to work 80 hour weeks, be on call, do customer tech support (I'm the system administrator), and do seven other people's jobs while I'm at it. Which *NECESSITATES* a 70 hour work week. Every.. freaking.. week! And to add insult to injury, I'm not even paid 1/4th of what I'm worth according to every salary survey out there. And of course, I'm going to be the first one asked to take a pay cut or vacation when the VC runs out. Which I expect to be very soon. The company is a management disaster. Ignorance and blatant lack of record keeping and blatant lack of research has already wasted over $4 *MILLION*. And of course, in typical "let's get ready for that day far FAR away when we make an IPO" fashion, we have a CEO, CFO, CTO, and COO already. Who's combined salaries could buy me *two* RS/6000 SP2 Advanced Switches (which, last check, are over $100k/ea) *AND* a Lexus!

Yet another:

Why DON'T you take your own advice? I've left two companies so far, when the management got absolutely intolerable--when the 'con' list got longer than the 'pro' list.

Two truths I've learned in my first two internet jobs (since '94, when I graduated university):

Burn Rate : How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet ~ Usually ships in 24 hours
Michael Wolff / Paperback / Published 1999 Our Price: $11.20 ~ You Save: $2.80 (20%) Average Customer Review: 4 out of 5 stars

 A reader from Dallas, Texas , August 21, 1999 1 out of 5 stars Simple, targeted revenge for mistakes he made in business I struggled to force myself to finish this book in hopes that somewhere, maybe even on the last page there would be a reason for having ever purchased this book. I was wrong. I felt like the entire purpose of this book was to make others look worse than the writer, and thereby raise himself up in the process. It didn't work. The internet has only just begun, yes there were early days, but it's a fast growing medium that, unlike any other medium, the masses can control. There are big players, there are major corporations in the game, but people still have control over what they do. Arrogant editors and writers & VCs miss the point. The medium is about people, community, tribal aspirations, connections, ideas, concepts or the simplest truth of them all.......the internet is a campfire, pure and simple enough for even this author to somehow have understood from the earliest days of his internet struggles. I enjoyed reading AOL.COM, had high hopes this book would be in that class, it was/is not.

A reader from Pune, India , August 20, 1999 5 out of 5 stars Excellent narravative of startups and VC-Owner relationship Among the various books available on the topic of startups, etc, this book most closely and frankly puts across the relationship between the Founder of a startup and the VCs who finance it. Also recorded the life and death of a internet startup. At times, the author seems almost aplogogetic, but that is always better than cockiness.

A very good buy!

A reader from Indianapolis , August 11, 1999 2 out of 5 stars Business Blinders Michael Wolff's attack on the the Internet Business world is interesting, but he makes the one mistake every business person seems to make: there is more to the world than making money. There is more to the Internet than how it is commercialized. If there are NO businesses on the Internet in the future, it still is going to be important. Since Wolff never get's beyond Television asumptions, he overlooks some of the most interesting things that Internet has to offer in Many to Many communication: the regular guy is just as accessable as the huge corporation. The regular guy can probably make money EASIER than the big corporation. There is more to life than being the organization man...




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