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Issues of the Day An Over-Crowdedness of the Senses

I sequestered myself monastically over the past few days in order to transform a presentation I gave last week at the annual meeting of the Israel Geographical Association into a journal article.

The subject is information pathologies in digital space, that is, on the Internet, where information overload and a host of related problems are plentiful and largely uncharted. I have been researching these phenomena and thinking about how geographical analysis and spatial tools could remedy them.

In researching one of these pathologies, cognitive overhead, I had the opportunity today to read a paper by David Kirsch, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at San Diego. The article, “A Few Thoughts on Cognitive Overload” was published in 2000 in the journal Intellectica. The article is one of those rare works that succinctly, clearly and gracefully addresses a subject in a way that expands the reader’s horizons.


Cognitive Overhead

Cognitive overhead is the cost we humans pay for the steady bombardment of information we receive from our communication and information devices – computers, handheld devices, smart phones, pads, pods and even more archaic technologies like television and snail mail. In the digital age, where data smog – from email, RSS feeds, list servers, blogs, videos and the rest -- gets so thick you can barely breathe, we are constantly challenged to multi-task and respond to distractions.

Cognitive overhead involves attending to and recovering from those distractions. This source of stress is as Prof. Kirsch states, a “brute fact of modern life. It is not going to disappear.”   The toll is taken in terms of mental duress and physical strain, not only among information workers but also on ordinary people who now find themselves immersed  in the brave, new Information Society.

The economic impact of this overload is estimated by the Basex company, an information economy consultancy, at close to a trillion dollars a year in the US alone. The noise and clutter continues to mount.   

Geographers, who study the influence of space and place on all aspects of reality, primarily earthbound but not only, perk up whenever spatial metaphors are mentioned and even more so with environmental ones are thrown in to boot. Accordingly, when Prof. Kirsch writes of workplaces and activity spaces and how they have become “ecologies saturated with overload,” my attention peaked and I began to consider the implications of cognitive overload a bit more profoundly.

A State of Over-Crowdedness


I conclude that we, those who are connected to the ‘Net and virtually anyone who is within earshot of mass media, live in a state of over-crowdedness. This goes beyond urban congestion, traffic jams, waiting in queue for the call center to answer our query, and being held in holding patterns above our home airports. It is an over-crowdedness of the senses, a burden on our being which weighs us down deeper and deeper on the digital floodplains.

We are assaulted by a stream of sounds, images and words beckoning us to consume – products and information – without letup. We grow more alienated -- from ourselves, from nature, and from the elementals of life that are really important – as a result.

I’m working hard to reduce the overhead around me. My computer is shut off on Saturdays and after work hours, and I don’t run to check my email first thing in the morning and repeatedly throughout the day. My cell phone is turned off when I do not wish to be interrupted, during work or if I am meeting with someone, and sometimes I answer calls only when they are  from a member of my family or someone I am close to.

I am particular about the music I listen to and the books I read, which I persist in encountering the old way – in print. I love cinema but not Hollywood – there’s enough action, intrigue and ribaldry around me without paying for a screen full of horror or debauchery. 

I like the silence at night and gazing at the stars during my evening walks. I look forward to those breaks in the winter cold when I can have my meals in the garden and to those moments I share talking qioetly around the dinner table or over a glass of wine with my family and friends.

I’d rather cope with the vicissitudes of life with minimal technological mediation than be numbed by the constant dribble of digital trance. Modern life may require me to employ its devices, but I won’t enslave myself to them.  

I am grateful for having read David Kirsch’s article. Its insights are steadying. 

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved