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by Jay Fienberg

Overloaded by boundaries, not information

posted: Feb 20, 2004 10:18:56 PM

Our brains process such incredibly vast amounts of information that I think it paradoxical that we feel overloaded by the information we receive through computers. Maybe, generally, a distinction can be made between our abilities to deal with non-verbal vs verbal forms of information.

I was wondering though if what overloads us is actually the boundaries between the information, more than the information itself.

If you look away from the computer for a moment and, say, gaze at your fingers, in that moment, the total scope of information your brain is processing (between what you are seeing, sensing with your other senses, thinking, and all the interconnections of these things—at least), is huge. I would bet, if it were somehow translated into bytes, that one moment's data would be orders of magnitude greater than all of the email you receive in a year.

One thing about that all information in your moment of experience, which seems distinct from all those emails, is that all those emails have many explicit boundaries attached to them, keeping them separate from one and other. I think computers have boundary issues, as in they create usability-inhibiting, explicit boundaries. It seems the human brain style is more towards pretend, implicit, boundaries.

I guess some of my thoughts about this are influenced by Edward Tufte whose work often shows ways that very dense information presented well (e.g., on a page) can be more easily assimilated than sparse information presented badly.

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