In a recent publication in Nature Human Behavior, scientists have issued a call to action regarding a lesser-known but equally perilous form of environmental pollution: information overload. With the ubiquity of smartphones and the internet, we are inundated with an overwhelming volume of data surpassing our cognitive capacities, leading to impaired decision-making and significant societal ramifications.

The consequences of information overload extend beyond mere cognitive strain; it manifests in diminished social engagement, job dissatisfaction, demotivation, and overall negativity, imposing an estimated global cost of approximately $1 trillion. Moreover, contextual and environmental factors exacerbate these personal and economic burdens.

The initiative to address information overload originated from a gathering of international scientists two years ago, supported by an E.U. grant for fostering global collaboration. Partnering with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Network Science and Technology Center (NeST), led by Dr. Boleslaw Szymanski, the researchers delve into the multifaceted aspects of this pervasive issue.

Drawing parallels with historical societal transformations, the researchers liken information overload to past challenges such as filtering low-quality research amidst open publishing and combating air pollution during the Industrial Revolution. They assert that akin to environmental activism, concerted efforts are needed to mitigate the hazards of “information pollution” or “data smog.”

Examining information overload through the lens of computer science reveals three interconnected levels: individual neural and cognitive mechanisms, group dynamics in processing information and making decisions, and broader societal interactions among individuals, groups, and information providers. This intricate network underscores the complexity of the problem.

Dr. Szymanski emphasizes the urgency for action in science, education, and legislation to address information overload. He advocates for interdisciplinary research, integration of information ecology into educational curricula, and discussions on legislative measures akin to past environmental regulatory frameworks.

Echoing these sentiments, Dr. Curt Breneman, Dean of Rensselaer’s School of Science, underscores the far-reaching implications of information overload on emotional well-being, job performance, and societal behavior. He hopes that the collaborative efforts highlighted in Dr. Szymanski’s letter will raise public awareness and pave the way for effective solutions to be explored and implemented.

By Impact Lab