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Information overload making your head explode?

If you think you are being bombarded by information now, just wait.

The term “Information overload,” sometimes called, “infobesity,” is a term that came into everyday use in the 1970s. It refers to our inability to absorb and process all the information to which we are exposed.

If given too much information, we tend to just shut down. There is a term for this, “Information Fatigue Syndrome” (IFS). The term was coined by Dr. David Lewis, a British psychologist, and the author of the report “Dying for Information?” commissioned by London based Reuters Business Information in 1998.

IFS symptoms include, poor concentration, hostility, falling into a trance-like state, burnout, and a compulsion to check email, voice mail, the Internet to stay connected. Eventually, the sufferer will experience a lower immune response, depression and burnout.

An early case study in IFS was in the United Airlines Flight 232 crash in 1989.

United Airlines Flight 232 was a scheduled flight from Denver’s Stapleton International Airport to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. On July 19, 1989, the airliner crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, after the failure of its tail-mounted engine, which caused the failure of all three independent hydraulic systems on board the aircraft.

The loss of flight controls left the crew with only two systems left for control: the two remaining engines. By adjusting only the thrust of the engines, the crew was able to make altitude, direction and speed adjustments. Without the use of the plane’s flaps and slats, they were unable to slow down for landing, and were forced to attempt a high-speed landing.

Immediately on touchdown the plane broke up and caught fire.  Despite the horrific nature of the crash, two thirds of the passengers survived the crash, in no small part due to the resourcefulness of the crew.

When the pilot Alfred Haynes was interviewed in the aftermath of the crash, he made a couple of interesting observations. Haynes noted that no one was prepared or trained for this scenario so hundreds of decisions had to be made based on unfamiliar information and information that had to be assimilated in an unfamiliar manner.

The crew began to experience all the symptoms of IFS, the most lethal one was “analysis paralysis.” There was so much information to be processed that none of it could be assimilated. It was only after the unexpected addition of a fourth crew member that the crew was able to function effectively.

Dennis Fitch was an off-duty United Airlines DC-10 flight instructor, taking a “dead head” ride on the plane who noticed the crew was having trouble and offered his assistance. Haynes credits Fitch with lowering the stress level in the plane and overload by cutting each person’s information processing needs by 30 percent.

Today, the information overload is primarily in electronic media and the exponential growth of information on the so-called “information age,” corresponding to growth in IFS.

In a 2010 address to 400 CIOs at Google’s Atmosphere Conference, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEI, said that prior to 2003; mankind had generated a sum total of 5 exabytes of digital content. (That is equal to 5 million terabytes.) That is approximately 12 million times the information in all the books ever written.

Today we generate this amount of content in a matter of days.

In every minute of 2012 there have been:

This only represents the data that we store. Far more data is generated and disappears as soon as it is generated. In 2007, about 1.9 zettabytes of information was generated from sources such as TV shows and GPS satellite location. (A zettabyte is 1,000 exabytes)

Information is growing faster than anything else being produced.

Roughly a third (34 percent) of the public say they go online for news, about the same percentage as with radio, and higher than daily newspapers. When cell phones, email, social networks and podcasts are added in, 44 percent of Americans say they got news through one or more Internet sources.

With so much data floating around, a new growth industry has arisen; it is the rise of “search engines.” These are tools that are used to “crawl” the Internet for everything that is posted and return pertinent information to searchers’ query.

While there are a number of search engines available, the best example of one is Google.

Anyone who has used the Internet has, at one time or another, used Google. People rely on the search engine to give them access to the information they need.

Google essentially serves as a gate-keeper to the world’s information and company officials say they recognize that responsibility in their unofficial corporate motto: “Don’t Be Evil.” According to their corporate website, it is part of a commitment to providing their users with “unbiased access to information” and also “doing the right thing.”

Critics of Google charge that they routinely violate that motto.

On the lighter side of data manipulation, periodically Google has planted “Easter Eggs” into their programming. An Easter Egg is a small amount of code put into a program to activate only in response to specific user input or a condition is met, for example, a certain date.

If a user types the word “anagram” into the search bar the first response returned is, “nag a ram” (itself being an anagram). If you type “tilt” into the search bar you get a response, but on a screen which is tilted.

At one time, if you typed “Chuck Norris” into the search bar and clicked on “I’m feeling lucky,” you would get the response, “Google won’t search for Chuck Norris because it knows you don’t find Chuck Norris, Chuck Norris finds you.”

But there is an insidious side to this manipulation. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission found that Google manipulates its search results to favor some websites over others. This finding concluded a 19-month anti-trust investigation into the search giant.

The FTC concluded that that Google used its search algorithm to demote competitors’ listings in search results. The study found that the search giant moved findings from their own sites farther up the search ranking and relegated results found on other search pages farther down the list, making those results more difficult to find.

In a major disappointment to Google’s competitors, the FTC found that Google was only looking to “improve the quality of its search results” and “any negative impact on actual or potential competitors was incidental to that purpose.”

Danny Sullivan, the editor of the industry blog Search Engine Land, said the FTC made the right decision by not taking action on the search bias charges. “People who go to Google expect to receive Google search results, not Yelp search results or Bing search results,” he said.

Understandably, companies are not pleased with the FTC ruling. Being relegated to page two or three of a Google results search can mean the difference between “making it” and going bankrupt. For other search engines, disappearing from the first results page in a search can have a huge impact on its advertising revenue.

While Google sees the FTC ruling as a victory, it has not been treated as kindly in other cases.

In November 2012, Google was ordered to pay U.S. $208,000 in an Australian defamation case involving how it showed a name in search results. In his suit, musician Michael Trkulja claimed that a person putting his name into Google’s search engine would be directed to websites where his name and photograph are mixed with underworld figures and crime identities. (Trkulja was shot in the back in what was first identified as an underworld shooting.)

When issuing the fine, a judge in the Victoria state Supreme Court in Australia compared Google’s search results to that of an online publisher and fell under those applicable laws.

Google is examining the original jury verdict and may file an appeal.

Other criticisms of Google involve privacy concerns, antitrust issues, and possible restraint of trade. It is the censorship issues that cause countries and civil rights advocates the greatest concern.

The opening salvo occurred in October 2012 when Google was blocked throughout China when the Communist Party met to appoint new leaders for the first time in a decade.

Google’s metrics showed a sharp drop in traffic from China, which Google attributed to an “outage.” “We’ve checked and there’s nothing wrong on our end,” a Google representative told CNNMoney at the time.

Service into China was eventually reopened but last month, Google removed a feature that notifies Chinese users of government censored keywords. The Chinese Internet freedom advocacy site Greatfire reported that Google tweaked their Chinese search feature that had informed users from China of keywords that were censored by the Chinese government.

According to GreatFire.org Google has also deleted a help article which explained how to use the feature – which it says indicates that Google is self-censoring in this instance, rather than being blocked by the government.

“Since the removal of the help article could only be done willingly by Google, the only explanation we see is that Google struck a deal with the Chinese government, giving in to considerable pressure to self-censor,” Greatfire writes.

Google confirmed to the industry site TechCrunch that it admitted to removing the notification feature and would have no further comment on the issue.

Figure 1 – This Google warning to Chinese users has been removed by the company

The move by Google was seen by privacy advocates as the search giant once again caving in to the “Great Firewall of China,” China’s attempt to restrict information flowing in and out of the country.

In 2005, China purchased more than 200 routers from the American technology company Cisco Systems that gave Beijing advanced technological censoring ability. Since the installation of the routers, “The Great Firewall” has imposed censorship on its 1.3 billion citizens.

Censorship in China is nothing new, for print publications; the Chinese censors have routinely torn out objectionable portions or stopped the distribution of entire publications. News broadcasts are censored as well. Foreign news broadcasts shown in five star hotels catering to foreigners will “go black” frequently.

Traditional censorship in a digital age has a minimal impact on information flow, but the control of electronic information is especially troubling.

More people than ever get their news and information from search engines and the control the results of a search query can eventually shape public opinion.

Information Technology research indicated that search engines such as Google can influence public opinion, simply by affecting what comes back from a search query. Other research also shows that Google actually attempted to manipulate public opinion in the last presidential election.

According to Robert Enderle’s article on the United States of Google shows that articles favorable to Barack Obama were weighted positively, while articles for Mitt Romney were given a negative bias.

For any search engine, the results shown on page 1 of a results page are generally the only articles read by the searcher. Articles that are relegated to the “Siberia” of page 2 of greater are hardly ever read. A search engine could manipulate the search results so that negative articles about a candidate come up on the first page, while positive information is pushed off that same page.

A company as large and pervasive as Google could be seen as exercising an abuse of power in tweaking the results. Google argues that the ordering of its search results is just their way of expressing its opinion. Taking an argument from the Australian case, a case they are appealing, Google is arguing that it is equivalent to a newspaper or magazine’s editorial page when it exercises its choice of articles it wants to publish. In Search King, Inc. v. Google, Google won using this argument.

Google has now updated its position on the matter by saying that it is, in effect a publisher and is entitled to the same first amendment rights given to all publishers.

All this begs the question that if Google succeeds in it argument, doesn’t that really inhibit our First Amendment rights? If Google can influence what we read, does that impinge upon our right to form our own opinion and affect public policy?

TV, texts, tweets, email. Are you overloaded with information?

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