Defrag, Information Underload, etc.

I had a good time at Eric Norlin’s excellent inaugural Defrag conference earlier this week in Denver. I met some entrepreneurs doing great work, got caught up with other friends (entrepreneurs and VCs alike), and sat in on some fascinating sessions.

My role, other than being an advisor to the conference, was moderating a wrap-up panel at the end. I opened with a little preamble/rant about information overload, information underload, and the trouble with personalization & relevance. And then I tossed it over to the panel to throw ideas around.

Here are some notes I made to myself to organize things. By way of background, however, the more I mulled the subject, the more I found myself worried about information underload, not information overload. I kept coming back (mentally) to a striking quote about the looming aviation inattention crisis from a 1970s paper:

The burning question of the near future will not be how much work a person can do safely, but how little.

Something similar applies, I think, in the world of information. While some of us are overwhelmed with information, most people aren’t — they just shut the world out. Sure, many people need to manage information overload, but how can we also do a better job of dealing with information underload, of being sure that people are effective while at the control panel of their corner of the world?

Herewith, my panel prep notes:

  • Oral cancer. Perpetual motion machines. Inbox
  • Outlier information. Fox News. Disconfirmation now, please.
  • Edge cases. People here use PIMs.
  • Survey question:
    • Tumblr?
    • Twitter?
    • Blogs?
    • Google Reader/etc.?
    • Email inbox
      • how many messages? 100? 1000? 10000?
    • Instant message? Daily? Hourly? Now?
    • The current Canada/U.S. exchange rate? $1.08
      • year ago: $0.88
    • People know the price at which oil closed today?
      • know why it jumped up today?
      • know where the North Sea is?
    • which supermodel is paid in euros?
    • know how many people are set to be evacuated because of the Three Gorges Dam on Yangtze
    • how many Americans have been killed this year in Iraq?
      • more or less than 900?
  • Underload, not overload. Three Mile Island. Too important.


  • Why are things so bad? Celebrity obituary data?
  • How do I get more disconfirming data?
  • Relevant surprise, not shock. Anatomically improbable pictures.
  • People are lazy and dumb. The people you want to do something won’t, and the people who will do something are nitwits. And that’s ok.
  • How do we exploit people’s laziness and stupidity?
  • Desert island software?
  • Cusp. Futures. Worriedly optimistic. Obligation. Opting out not an option.


  1. Andy Nelson says:

    I can understand super models being paid in euros, but it is a surprise when rap videos start featuring euros.
    “The Jay-Z video flashed large stacks of $500 Euros.
    When I start seeing rap stars flashing euros instead of U.S. dollars, I know our economy is in trouble. ” (via Mark Hemingway at

  2. Paul: I found the concept of “information underload” an interesting one. While a bit turned off with the “excuse” of simply turning it off as a way to cope or justify not dealing with it, I do understanding your point that we need to faciliate a way where people can “be effective when at the control panel”.
    However, this brings up an even more fundamental question. If we believe people will truly not engage b/c information overload as a way to avoid it, do we really believe people will engage if given information in a “digest” or less overload sort of way. Users have to have the need and desire to get to information that matters. Just because technology is there, there still needs to an effort.
    BTW, I did find very interesting your view on that you would much rather have something that gave you contrarian views to your work or views than substantiate your existing view/opinion on something. Of course, “contrary” is such a abstract topic when the premise is not black and white.