Information Overload + Architecture

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

–      Herbert Simon, Recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics, 1978

Information has never been more abundant than it is today, and it seems as if the trend will only proliferate in coming years and decades. More information and more outputs and means of absorbing information are inevitable developments. But what will be done with this information. Excesses of information have already begun to show potential drawbacks and weaknesses, such as the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009. Authorities asserted that they had all the information, but failed to connect the dots because they simply had too much information to act on (see The Blindness of Surveillance).

As of January 2009, Technorati was had indexed 133 million blogs. As of this writing there have been over 8.4 billion tweets, many of which link to other sources of information. The unprecedented plethora of information is astounding.  Even by only seeking and absorbing in a specific range or niche, the available information is overwhelming. How much information do you absorb each day through various media? How many tweets do you read? How many links do you follow? How many blogs do you read or follow? How many websites do you visit? And don’t forget books, magazines, newspapers, TV, podcasts and conversation.

I personally learn, or at least come in contact with, far more information each day than I can possibly act on. Take this post for example. The stimulus to write this came from one page from one book. Through Google Alerts I found at least half a dozen things more I would like to have done something with, and through twitter perhaps a dozen more. In addition there are easily dozens of more things that I learn, think about or otherwise strike my interest each day.

The point of all of this lead up is where is the line drawn? Or how is information best filtered and utilized? Failure to do so could lead to a paralysis from information overload, or the spiraling habit of gathering information for information’s sake.

Author Timothy Ferris proposes trying a “Low-Information Diet” and “cultivating selective ignorance”, the goal being to eliminate interruptions or distraction that are irrelevant, unimportant or unactionable. He argues that the decreased input frees time and energy for increased output. He encourages readers to only seek and consume information that is directly relevant to what goals they are pursuing and the next steps to be taken.

Can architecture and design suffer from information overload? I think it is entirely plausible that projects, both academic and professional, could sink into stagnation. Case studies, new technologies and materials, systems integration, energy, BIM, statistics and theory could weigh projects down. The balance of research and design could be thrown askew; energy far more concentrated on the information and technology of the project than the people they will house.

However, information can be integrated into architecture in creative and interesting ways that address the people and the city. The Polis Blog has a recent post about Urbanism in the Information Age. Citing the Zero Energy Media Wall project, they highlight the possibilities that thoughtful integration of systems could lead to in terms of information display, communication and social interaction in the city.

“Such possible transformations move beyond communicating building/urban data or displaying art installations to a fleeting audience, instead hinting at the reality of a responsive city that has the potential for self-correcting measures.”

–      ­Andrew Wade

Information, whether input or output, influencing or distracting, is something to be intelligently used.

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2 Responses to Information Overload + Architecture

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