The exponential expansion of information is a major theme of our world. We are told we experience ‘information overload’. The information we receive, absorb, transmit is increasingly processed through digital media. The greater part of this information is mediated through screens, more often than not on a mobile hand-held or wearable device.
This drives us towards designing for short attention spans, with content that is easy to digest and usually at a reduced scale. As we focus on short or abbreviated texts and simplified images – be they still, animated or video – they become the norm as we switch from one activity or task to another, thus compounding the effect. We are treating information like fast-food junkies.
The increasing dominance of the virtual world excludes some of the more nuanced experiences we gain through physical and environmental interaction and may deprive us from deeper, richer, more rewarding and more manageable experiences.
Mobile technology condenses traditional media and decontextualises much of the information we process. Neuroscientists such as Daniel Levitin are questioning whether we are dealing with this digital multitasking effectively, or whether we are losing cognitive powers as we get distracted by, and become omnivorous consumers of, random data.
‘Information overload’ itself can be misunderstood. While we recognise the dramatic increase in data available, we may be making less use of inherent and learnt abilities such as direct observation and critical judgement to gain and filter the information we need. At present information is all in our heads, stressing us out.
The virtual world is being privileged over our physical one. We need both, but in balance. Information design and user experience need to reassert themselves on two levels: to help validate and shape informative content, and to help innovate through using ‘real world’ means, not those exclusively screen-based, to provide context and reference.