INFORMATION OVERLOAD : What to Do When Anxiety Cripples You

<i> From the book "Information Anxiety" by Richard Saul Wurman. Copyright 1989 by Richard Saul Wurman, to be published by Doubleday in February. </i>

ONCE, PHONE service came from a single company, computers were used only by rocket scientists and watching television meant choosing one of three major networks. Today, the information assault is on. There are 125 long-distance phone companies in California alone. Computers have revolutionized everything from hand-held calculators to household appliances. And 1,388 TV stations crowd the airwaves.

Want just the facts? If you went to the Library of Congress and looked at one book, manuscript or other library resource each minute eight hours a day, five days a week, it would take you more than 688 years to see all 85,895,835 items. (That’s up from 59,890,533 in 1969.) The size of the average American newspaper has more than doubled since 1970 to 91 pages, and we spend 45 minutes a day reading it--though that is just 10 minutes more than a decade ago. The average Sunday paper in 1970 had 145 pages; in 1986 it had 351.

Even convenience is increasingly complicated. One videocassette recorder--with 35 buttons on its remote control--takes salespeople about 45 minutes per customer to explain. The instruction manual is 35 pages thick. Little wonder, then, that a Circuit City salesman in Torrance says 20% of the 50 VCRs the store sells every day are eventually returned by people who can’t figure them out.


Richard Saul Wurman, developer of the Access guides, including “L.A. Access,” and creator of the “Smart” Yellow Pages, specializes in making information of all kinds easy to find, use and digest. In this preview of his book, “Information Anxiety,” he describes symptoms of the malady of the Information Age, and ways to keep from drowning in the data stream.

Illustrated by J. T. Steiny


INFORMATION ANXIETY is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. It happens when information doesn’t tell us what we want or need to know.

Our relationship to information isn’t the only source of information anxiety. We are also made anxious by the fact that our access to information is often controlled by other people. We are dependent on those who design information, on the news editors and producers who decide what news we will receive, and by decision makers in the public and private sector who can restrict the flow of information. We are also made anxious by other people’s expectations of what we should know, be they company presidents, peers or even parents.

Almost everyone suffers from information anxiety to some degree. We read without comprehending, see without perceiving, hear without listening. It can be experienced as moments of frustration with a manual that refuses to divulge the secret to operating a videocassette recorder or a map that bears no relation to reality. It can happen at a cocktail party when someone mentions the name Allan Bloom and the only person you know by that name is your dentist. It can also be manifest as a chronic malaise, a pervasive fear that we are about to be overwhelmed by the very material we need to master to function in this world.


IF THE “In” basket in your office casts a shadow like Annapurna over your desk and the mere mention of the word information makes you cringe and moan, chances are that you’re suffering from information anxiety. But if you’re not sure, the following behaviors are indications that dealing with information might be a problem in your life.

Chronically talking about not keeping up with what’s going on around you.

Feeling guilty about that ever-higher stack of periodicals waiting to be read.

Nodding your head knowingly when someone mentions a book, an artist or a news story that you have never heard of before.

Finding that you are unable to explain something that you thought you understood.

Blaming yourself for not being able to follow the instructions for putting a bike together.

Refusing to buy a new appliance or piece of equipment because you are afraid you won’t be able to operate it.

Feeling depressed because you don’t know what all of the buttons on your VCR are for.

Buying high-tech electronics because you feel that, through osmosis, you’ll become more technologically knowledgeable.

Calling “The Society of Mind” “prophetic” even though you couldn’t even understand the book review of it, which is all you read.

Looking down at your digital watch to jot down the exact time in an office building logbook even though you know that no one really cares.

Giving time and attention to news that has no cultural, economic or scientific effect on your life.

Filling out a form and feeling compelled to fill in every blank.

Reacting emotionally to information that you don’t really understand--like not knowing what the Dow Jones is but panicking when you hear that it has dropped 500 points.

Thinking that the person next to you understands everything you don’t.

Being too afraid or too embarrassed to say, “I don’t know.”

Or worse, calling something information that you don’t understand.

We are bombarded with material from the media, from colleagues and from cocktail party conversation, all of which is delivered in the form of what we have been taught to think of as information. We are like a thirsty person who has been condemned to use a thimble to drink from a fire hydrant. The sheer volume of available information and the manner in which it is often delivered render much of it useless.


THE FOLLOWING are misnomers, myths and diseases that litter the information field. Unless you are aware of them, they will sabotage understanding. They afflict our ability to see things we have always seen but have never really seen. They obscure our path to learning. But by recognizing them, we can disarm their potential to mislead us.

The disease of familiarity. Familiarity breeds confusion. Those afflicted are the experts in the world who, so bogged down by their own knowledge, regularly miss the key points as they try to explain what they know. You ask them the time, and they tell you how to build a clock. We have all known teachers whom we consider extraordinarily bright, yet we cannot understand what they are saying. They fail to provide the doorknob or the threshold to each thought so that you can grapple with the learning connections along the journey.

Looking good is being good. The disease of looking good is confusing aesthetics with performance. A piece of information performs when it successfully communicates an idea, not when it is delivered in a pleasing manner. Information without communication is no information at all. It is an extremely common, insidious malady among graphic designers and architects. The cure is to ask how something performs.

The uh-huh syndrome. This occurs when our fear of looking stupid outweighs our desire to understand. The manifestations are involuntary head-nodding and repeating, “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” pretending to know what we do not. Rather than admit we don’t understand quantum mechanics, we nod our heads as if we were intimately familiar with the subject, desperately trying to give the impression that we understand terms or allusions that are incomprehensible to us. This only prevents us from learning and exacerbates our suspicion that everyone else knows more than we do.

Unhealthy comparisons. Comparing unknowns or intangibles is uninformative; so is comparing things that have nothing in common. People warn of the dangers of comparing apples to oranges, when this is a perfectly reasonable comparison. They share many common characteristics--both are globular fruit that grow on trees. An unhealthy comparison would be to compare the cost of a loaf of bread or a movie 50 years ago to the cost today. The dollar had a completely different value then. The informative value of this comparison is very little. Whereas healthy comparison is one of the most powerful informative tools--for example, comparing the cost of a loaf of bread relative to a movie 50 years ago and today.

If it’s accurate, it’s informative. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other. The cure is learning to go beyond the facts, to meaning, and to recognize the nature of the receiver. Accuracy or facts do not necessarily make things understandable. Quoting a price in pounds won’t help someone who understands only dollars and cents. Barometric pressure is another example. I would say there is one person in a thousand who knows how the barometric pressure is derived or what it means; yet weather commentators slavishly offer it in every forecast.

Unnecessary exactitude. Rounding off is not a sin. Not only is extreme accuracy not always information, it is often not necessary. For pilots, knowing the exact altitude of the plane is important. But whether the plane is flying at 32,000 feet or 32,112 doesn’t add to their experience of flying. In the business community, an accountant needs exact figures, but someone making a presentation on sales projections might just as well say that projected sales will be $90,000 rather than $91,653. Just because the technology to provide accuracy to the nth degree exists doesn’t mean we have to take advantage of it. Sometimes detail prohibits you from seeing the bigger picture. Even the federal government permits rounding dollar amounts on tax forms.

Rainbow worship, or adjectivitis. This is an epidemic belief that more color and more colorful language will increase understanding. This is particularly insidious in sports reporting, which has adapted the dramatic language of war. Teams are “annihilated, destroyed, massacred.”

Here today, gone today memory dysfunction. This is characterized by total memory loss one hour after learning something. This has been caused by the educational system’s emphasis on short-term memory. The cramming of unnecessary information about unnecessary subjects for unnecessary examinations to get unnecessary grades. The cure is very simple; the key to learning is remembering what you are interested in and that through interest comes understanding.

Overload amnesia. This is a permutation of the here today, gone today memory dysfunction that occurs more specifically as a response to overloading yourself with data. When overtaxed, your memory will not only release the data that you were trying to retain but also may arbitrarily purge other files as well. This is often experienced when trying to assimilate data when you cannot control the flow, such as in a classroom, conference or lecture. This is why, after listening to a particularly ponderous speech, not only can you not remember a thing the speaker said, but you forget where you parked your car, too.

User-friendly intimidation. User-friendly has to be one of the most absurd terms in the language of technology. Like many other words in techno-talk, this usually means the opposite of itself. Any piece of hardware or software that has to be described as user-friendly is probably not. Often the appearance of friendship with silly graphics is only camouflage for incoherent instructions. Besides, why should a computer be friendly? We have the right to expect technology and equipment to perform for us, to save us time and make our lives easier, but if we expect friendship from it, we’re bound to be disappointed.

Some-assembly-required gambit. I have no doubt that somewhere in the instructions for building a Saturn missile are the words “some assembly required.” This is instant intimidation, a phrase lightly tossed off and designed to make the user feel that any boob could put this machine together during a network station break. I suspect that it’s sheer business chicanery, a trick so that the manufacturer can collect on a house call and a repair bill after you have failed miserably at the some-assembly-required test.

The expert-opinion syndrome. There is a tendency to believe that the more “expert opinions” we get--be they legal, medical, automotive or otherwise--the more informed we will be. But we tend to forget that “expert opinion” is by no means synonymous with “objective opinion.” Unfortunately, most experts come with a professional bias that makes obtaining truly objective information almost impossible. Take the second-opinion movement in medicine in which patients are encouraged to consult more than one doctor before undergoing non-emergency surgery. Surgeons are trained to respond to problems by performing surgery, so it is likely that they will see surgery as the solution to a patient’s problem.

Don’t tell me how it ends. The popularity of the suspense genre in books and movies has encouraged people to extrapolate this to maintaining interest when conveying new information as a salesman does when unveiling a new product. I think not knowing how something ends makes us apprehensive; it prohibits us from understanding how something was done while we frantically try to guess how it might end. People love Shakespeare because they know the endings; an opera is more pleasurable when you know the whole story before the curtain rises. While suspense has its place, it does tend to induce anxiety, which is probably not an optimum state for receiving new information. If you know the ending, you can relax and enjoy the manner in which something is presented. An audience will be more receptive to new information if it isn’t kept in suspense, made anxious trying to guess where someone is going. Many people can’t really listen to an idea until key questions about it have been answered in their minds.

Information impostors. This is nonsense that masquerades as information because it is postured in the form of information. We automatically give a certain weight to data based on the form in which it is delivered. Because we don’t take the time to question this, we assume we have received some information. My favorite example of this is in cookbook recipes that call for you to “season to taste” or “cook until done.” This doesn’t tell you very much. Why bother? Information impostors are the fodder for administrativitis.

Administrativitis. This is a disease manifest in schools, institutions and big business where the individuals think that they are running the system but where the opposite is the case. It is characterized by a preoccupation with the details of the operation--administrative issues, salaries, square footage of office space and supplies--and a neglect of the purposes for operation. It has reached global proportions and is the fundamental curse of our society.

Edifitis. This is a condition characterized by the belief that a better building or a flashier annual report will solve all problems. Many a business has crumbled trying to improve its corporate headquarters instead of its corporation.


THESE ARE my own prescriptions for reducing anxiety, for making less painful and more sensible decisions about the information in your life, for developing practical defenses against the increasing onslaught of raw data. They include the tactics I employ when the piles on my desk start to topple, my appointment schedule short-circuits, and my life seems ever more complex. My battle plan for conquering information and information anxiety is aimed at improving your attitude toward the subject, as well as the actual approach you take to information-processing.

Robust Attitudes

Accept that there is much you won’t understand. Let what you don’t know spark your curiosity. Visualize the words I don’t know as a bucket that can now be filled with the water of knowledge.

As you learn about something, try to remember what it is like not to know. This will add immeasurably to your ability to explain things to other people.

Reduce guilt feelings over the unread by recognizing that the quantity of information is such that you can’t read everything.

Every time you come across a new idea, try to relate it to something else. Find a connection from the new idea to other ideas.

Think about opposites. When you have a problem, think of one solution, then of its opposite. When you choose a direction, think about what would happen if you went in an opposite direction.

Robust Actions

Become familiar with the traps and pitfalls of communicating information. Are you a victim of:

--The disease of familiarity?

--Thinking that looking good is being good?

--The uh-huh syndrome?

--Unhealthy comparisons?

--Assuming that if something is accurate it’s informative?

--Unnecessary exactitude?

--Rainbow worship, or adjectivitis?

--Here today, gone today memory dysfunction?

--User-friendly intimidation?

--Some-assembly-required gambit?

--The expert-opinion syndrome?

--Don’t tell me how it ends syndrome?

--Failing to recognize information impostors?



Establish your own level of appropriateness when it comes to accuracy. For example, when someone asks you the time, instead of faithfully recounting to the minute the time on your digital watch, try saying, “It’s almost noon.”

Make a list of the terms you use but don’t really understand, such as the Dow Jones Industrials or the M1, M2, M3, and make a point to learn what they mean--one at a time.

Plan your information diet as you would plan a vacation. Outline a system for categorizing the information needs in your life based on your answers to the following questions:

--What do you need for your job?

--How much is essential?

--How much is desirable?

--What subjects pique your interest?

--What do you like to talk about?

--What do you spend time with that isn’t really necessary?

--How would the elimination of it change your life?

After you have established categories, develop a picture of your informational habits (the newspapers you read, programs you watch, books you consult, etc.). How do they fit into the larger categories and subgroupings?

Determine your preferred method of learning. Some people learn best by reading a book, taking a course, experimenting or asking someone else. Then, when you need to get information on a subject, try to find a way that will involve your preferred form. Personally, I learn more from talking to one other person.

Isolate the informational areas in your life that give you the most anxiety. They could be:

--Medical (talking to doctors).

--Financial (handling banking, mortgages, insurance forms, loan applications).

--Electronic (buying equipment, operating technology).

--Reference materials (reading train schedules or statistical abstracts).

Just by making a list, you will probably feel less anxious. Rate the items from one to 10. Postulate what would have to happen to reduce your anxiety in each area. Would you have to take a course, study for two years, or could you call someone on the phone? Then you might decide you would rather pay an accountant to figure out your taxes than overcome your form phobia. Once you admit that you can’t know everything, you will be much more comfortable with the idea of not knowing something.

Reduce your guilt pile of reading materials that seem to gaze disapprovingly at you from their high perch on your desk while they wait interminably to be read. I use the shard approach. First, I let the stack of periodicals (piled on the floor next to my desk) reach a designated height (about 2 feet). Then I leaf through them and rip out articles that interest me. This reduces my guilt pile to a small stack of articles that becomes my interest “shards.”

We have only begun to tap the markets for information. It is capital in an unlimited supply. Information isn’t just mathematical formulas or instructions for a computer. It is art, advice, technology, theory and the motivation behind all communications.

Those who profit most from it will be those who recognize its universality and multiple applications. Those who tap into new sources of information with confidence and a sound sense of purpose will be the power brokers of tomorrow.

As the economy adapts to an unlimited supply of capital, we will come to view information in a different light and adjust our vision to accommodate it. And, as we become more comfortable with living in an information age, we can shed some of our anxieties about it.