Information Overload

Data is among the most potent weapons of the 21st century. Unprecedented amounts of raw information help the military determine what targets to hit and what to avoid. And drone-based sensors have given rise to a new class of wired warriors who must filter the information sea. But sometimes they are drowning.

Research shows that the kind of intense multitasking required in such situations can make it hard to tell good information from bad. The military faces a balancing act: how to help soldiers exploit masses of data without succumbing to overload.

The military’s response?  Restructuring basic training to include more instances of information overload in order to habituate recruits to it.  But there is a point at which the human brain simply cannot handle a job in which it must simultaneously watch 10 video streams from predator drones and monitor 30 chats with commanders at the front. “I’ll have a phone in one ear, talking to a pilot on the headset in the other ear, typing in chat at the same time and watching screens” says one lieutenant. A colleague adds that his “brain hurts each night, the way feet ache after a long march.”

It is not only individuals in the military, but the military itself that is suffering from information overload. And indeed, policymakers and the public also suffer from it. There are diminishing returns to each technological enterprise attempting to engineer its way beyond natural limitations, whether they occur in our own brains or in the larger environment. A discussion of alternative approaches would be a prudent course of action as we exhaust our attempt to solve various problems technologically.  Otherwise we will find ourselves facing crisis after crisis which we see coming, but do almost nothing at all to address beforehand…besides what we would have done anyway.

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