Consider early cavemen. How did cavemen receive information? Perhaps they received it orally from their fellow cavemen or maybe by drums, and certainly from claps of thunder that signaled the arrival of a storm. However, despite all the sources of information, the arrival of it was quite infrequent. We can imagine that cavemen welcomed the stimulation of new information.
Fast forward to 1950. How did mankind receive information in 1950? Well, we had newspapers, radio and we were just beginning to have television. We had signs on the motorway and billboards in the city. We had grocery store shelves stocked with goods. The ways that we received information and the rate at which that information flowed had increased dramatically over anything the cavemen had ever known.
What about today? We have the telephone, fax, television, radio, billboards, mail, the grocery store and many, many other ways in which we receive messages. In fact, we have reached the point of overload. We receive so many messages so fast that if any of them penetrate our memory and remain there for more than a minute, it is something of a miracle.
Consider the Internet. The Internet has a peculiar way of delivering messages at an unprecedented rate. Furthermore, these messages can be long and complex, and they are often personal.
The other day, I was having a conversation with my good friend John Zachman. John told me that he has effectively given up even looking at the Internet. He said that the rate at which messages arrived through the Internet exceeded his capacity to read and assimilate them; therefore, he only looks at the Internet occasionally. And John points out that Alvin Toffler predicted this years ago - in Future Shock.
Whether we have reached the point of information overload or not, the potential for overload is there. It is simply true that computers - used in their many forms - can create information faster than we can absorb it.
How should we cope with information overload?
The first clues as to how we can cope with information come to us from the structured environment. Following are some of the approaches that the folks in the structured environment used to cope with the reams of data that were generated:
- Summarize data - do not look at every single record.
- Organize data - separate data into meaningful categories.
- Create thresholds - only pay attention to data when a predetermined threshold has been created.
- Edit data - remove unnecessary or extraneous data.
- Periodically deliver data - do not report data or even make data accessible as soon as possible. Give the data some amount of time to "settle" before it is introduced to the public.
- Arrange data into a hierarchy - create a means of arranging data so that the most interesting data appears easily and the most mundane data is stored where it is not particularly easy to access.
These approaches and more are used as a matter of course by the IT professional to manage the flood of data that is generated as a byproduct of today's day-to-day business. But will these techniques help us to cope with the unstructured data that comes to us from the world of e-mails and the Internet? Probably not. In order to deal with the world of unstructured data, it is necessary to have a whole new filtering technology that can both read unstructured data and manipulate the data after it is read.
Reading unstructured data is merely the first step in starting to filter it out. After the unstructured data is read, it needs to be edited and prioritized. The problem is that the unstructured data is exactly that - unstructured. There is no structure or format for the data; therefore, getting a handle on what is important and what is not important is no small feat.
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