Information Pollution

jakob nielsen by alex eben meyer

Information pollution is the contamination of information supply with irrelevant, redundant, unsolicited and low-value information. The spread of useless and undesirable information can have a detrimental effect on human activities. It is considered one of the adverse effects of the information revolution. Pollution is a large problem and is growing rapidly in e-mail, instant messaging (IM), and RSS feeds.

The term acquired particular relevance in 2003 when Jakob Nielsen, a leading web usability expert, published a number of articles discussing the topic. However, as early as 1971 researchers were expressing doubts about the negative effects of having to recover ‘valuable nodules from a slurry of garbage in which it is a randomly dispersed minor component.’

People use information in order to make decisions and adapt to circumstances. Yet, cognitive studies have demonstrated that there is only so much information human beings can process before the quality of their decisions begins to deteriorate. The excess of information is commonly known as information overload and it can lead to decision paralysis, where the person is unable to make a judgment as they cannot see what is relevant anymore. Although technology has clearly exacerbated the problem, it is not the only cause of information pollution. Anything that distracts our attention from the essential facts that we need to perform a task or make a decision could be considered an information pollutant.

The use of the term information pollution also draws attention to the parallels between the information revolution that began in the last quarter of the 20th century and the industrial revolution of the 18th-19th century. Information pollution is seen as the equivalent of the environmental pollution generated by industrial processes. Some authors claim that we are facing an information overload crisis of global proportions, in the same scale of the threats faced by the environment. Others have expressed the need for the development of an information ecology to mirror environmental management practices.

Although information pollution can present itself in many formats, its manifestations can be broadly grouped into those that provoke disruption and those that affect the quality of the information. Typical examples of disrupting information pollutants include unsolicited electronic messages (spam) and instant messages, particularly when used in the workplace. Mobile phones (the ring tones and also the actual conversation) can be very distracting in certain environments. Disrupting information pollution is not always technology based. A common example is unwanted publicity in any format. Superfluous messages, such as unnecessary labels on a map, also constitute an unnecessary distraction.

The other type of information pollution manifestation is advertisement in transport and advertising posters at streets (light-boxes, bill-boards, etc.) Advertisement in transport like metro is getting offensive, because its quantity is behind the reasonable need and perception goes down. The effect of such information pollution is reverse, and a person becomes unreceptive to any information. Informationally polluted streets become overloaded with different types of advertisement, information, data, etc. Movement gets dangerous due to attention dissipation, which can cause accidents, including major car incidents.

Alternatively, the information supply may be polluted when the quality of the information is reduced. This may be due to the information itself being inaccurate or out of date but it also happens when the information is badly presented. For example, when the messages are unfocused or unclear or when they appear in cluttered, wordy or poorly organised documents that make it difficult for the reader to understand their meaning. This type of information pollution can be addressed in the context of information quality. Another example is in government work. Laws and regulations in many agencies are undergoing rapid changes and revisions. Government workers’ handbooks and other sources used for interpreting these laws are often outdated ( sometimes years behind the changes ) which can cause the public to be misinformed, and businesses to be out of compliance with regulatory laws.

A number of cultural factors have contributed to the growth of information pollution. Information has been seen traditionally as a positive, evinced in statements like ‘you cannot have too much information,’ ‘the more information the better,’ and ‘information is power.’ As new technologies made it easier for information to reach the furthest corners of the planets, we have seen a democratization of information sharing. This is perceived as a sign of progress and individual empowerment, as well as a positive step to bridge the divide between the information poor and the information rich. However, it also has the effect of increasing the volume of information in circulation and making it more difficult to separate valuable from worthless material.

The technological advances of the Internet has played a key role in the increase of information pollution. Blogs, social networks, personal websites, and mobile technology all contribute to increased ‘noise’ levels. Some technologies are seen as especially intrusive (or polluting), for example instant messaging. Sometimes, the level of pollution caused depends on the environment in which the tool is being used. For example e-mail is likely to cause more information pollution when used in a corporate environment than in a private setting. Mobile phones are likely to be particularly disruptive when used in a confined space like a train.

At a personal level, information pollution will affect the capacity of the individual to evaluate options and find adequate solutions. In the most extreme case it can lead to information overload and this in turn to anxiety, decision paralysis, and stress. There also seem to be some negative effects on the learning process. Aside from its impact on the individual, some authors argue that information pollution and information overload can cause loss of perspective and moral values. This argument has been used to explain the indifferent behavior that modern society shows towards certain topics such as scientific discoveries, health warnings, or politics. Because of the low quality and large quantity of the information received, people are becoming less sensitive to headlines and more cynical towards new messages.

As decision making is a key part of the business world. Information pollution may cause employees to become burdened with information overload and stress and therefore make slower or inadequate decisions. Increased information processing time easily translates into loss of productivity and revenue. Flawed decision making will also increase the risk of critical errors taking place. Work interruptions caused by e-mail and instant messaging can also add considerably to wasted time and efficiency losses.

A number of solutions to the problem of information pollution have been proposed. These range from those based on personal and organizational management techniques to the type based on technology. Among the technology-based alternatives are the use of decision support systems and internet control panels which enable prioritization of information. It has also been advocated that technologies that create frequent interruptions should be replaced with less ‘polluting’ options.

At an organizational level, some of the solutions proposed include the enforcement of e-mail usage policies and the development of an information integrity assurance strategy, in similar lines to existing quality assurance frameworks. Time management and stress management techniques can be applied at a personal or organizational level. This would involve setting priorities and minimizing the opportunities for interruptions. As an individual, writing clearly and concisely would also help to minimize information pollution effects on others.

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