I was thinking about this a little, about how technology has an impact on the way we think. Here are my thoughts.
It wasn't too long ago when I was in high school in Taiwan and all you need was a textbook. You know that if you study the textbook well a grade of A would be guaranteed. Everything you needed was in that one nice package. No worrying about what information you have missed and trying to hunt down the right information.
This is quite different today. We now live in a stream of information (I got this notion from Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks). Information is updated all the time, and often it is our job to deal with the ambiguity and diversity of data that is out there. The low cost of swinging from one piece of information (in the case of internet, just switching to pages) is lower than ever before, urging us to move on whenever our judgment call deems a page not worthwhile.
I think this "background processing", the need to feel we are responsible for finding the right information in what seems like an unending pool of data at least contributes to the feeling of information overload. It's a bit like gambling. We are not sure of the outcome, and thus the effect is magnified. The ambiguity about whether we have the complete picture and the fear that maybe one thing out there could completely change the basis for our research, drives us crazy.
Another fact I think makes us information addicts that check emails all the time is the fact that it is asynchronous. The non-real time nature of tools like email and voice mail have made group collaboration much more efficient, but precisely for this reason, the recipient of this information can often get overwhelmed, because the sender does not need consent from the recipient. For example, if people had to always use phone calls to conduct business rather than using email, there won't be "left over" calls at the end of the day because when you're on one call, someone else has to wait for you to finish before speaking to you on the phone. With emails, it is up to you to just send the info and let the receiver deal with it. This makes for the volume of incoming data more volatile with emails, and since habits have momentum, when the volume of email is low, we crave for it.
All this comes down to the question of "what does information mean to you". Of course, if none of us deem the information valid or useful, no information overflow would occur. However, it is useful to address this issue for a growing number of people who find information to be an indispensable part of their work life well being and for sustainable progress as a society. I wonder what are the technologies that will be required to address this. Some sort of intelligent agent perhaps? Habit change is definitely needed, but how? Just one of my many thoughts. :)
How does technology distract you?