The information economy is reaching maximum overload

August 22, 2012: 11:20 AM ET

In the race to solve one problem, the last century's greatest technologists created a host of new ones.

FORTUNE -- This month I went off the grid -- all the way off. I powered my iPhone down, popped the vacation responder on my email, and headed out for a two-week adventure. By day two, I had stopped reflexively reaching for my phone; after a week, I could read a book for more than an hour at a time. Then I came home to a sobering reality: 1,379 messages in my Inbox.

And that was just work email.

I'm not as important as my voluminous Inbox would have you believe me to be, nor am I all that unique. Chances are you have this problem, too. And it seems to be getting a lot worse. Unlike past years, when people checked in occasionally from summer vacation destinations, this year digital sabbaticals were in vogue. (Social media researcher Danah Boyd even published a "how-to" on the topic.) As one friend's "away" message read: "I'm unplugged from 8/5-8/20. I won't be responding to e-mail." None of this occasional checking in -- this summer we needed a real break.

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But this is not another rant against email. Email is magic. It enables abundant, free communication. Consider how far we have come in less than a century: In 1915 -- the year my grandfather was born -- Alexander Graham Bell picked up a telephone in New York and made the country's first transcontinental call to San Francisco. Adjusting for inflation, the price of a 3-minute call back then was $440. Today, I video chat through my Gmail account with friends in Budapest or Tokyo -- for free. Seriously, magic.

Rather, this is a call for innovation. This detail about the telephone came from Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, which was easily the most important book I read in 2012. Gertner identifies communications as the largest challenge the American economy had to confront in the 20th century, and he vividly describes the formula for innovation that Bell Labs pioneered.

In his historical account of the rise of Bell Labs, a discerning reader will recognize many of the elements -- collaborative heterogeneous teams, free time to work on personal projects -- that have become staples in Silicon Valley's most innovative companies. But the thought I'm left contemplating months after completing the book is raised in the final chapter: "Has access to information not only expanded our lives, but contracted them?" Gertner asks.

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Put simply, in the race to solve one problem, the last century's greatest technologists created a host of new ones. There are, of course, basic security concerns. The information age -- in particular, the quick and inexpensive exchange of data -- presents opportunities for the violation of privacy and exposes societies to vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers and cyberterrorists. Witness the rise of the group of activist-hackers who call themselves Anonymous.

And then there's the problem of my email box. New tools are constantly being invented to help me to see the information that matters to me, and to digest more information more efficiently. But so far, most of those tools make this particular problem worse.

Social networks are a perfect example. Many have attempted to lend social context to communication, helping us naturally to filter out what is less important. But our culture has not yet abandoned emails en masse for social networks in the way that we abandoned landlines, for example, in favor of cell phones. Unless a communications tool is adopted by everyone, becoming the cultural norm, it is useless because users can't trust their messages will be received. Thus social networks feel more like the digital versions of entertainment magazines and their email prompts -- "Matt Vella is following you on Kickstarter" and "Evan Hempel wants you to join his network on LinkedIn" -- add to the email problem.

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Could it be that our end goal is wrong? Most of these services are focused on helping us digest more -- more information on more topics coming from more people. Two decades ago British anthropologist Robin Dunbar studied the social connections in groups of monkeys and mapped this information to brain size to come up with a theory that the maximum number of relationships a human being can realistically manage is 150. Talk to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and they'll often demonstrate how their services can help you game "the Dunbar number," as it is called, nursing far more than 150 relationships. Is this the right objective? Or should we instead be focusing on how to limit communication, to nurture and deepen a smaller number of relationships?

I don't have an answer for the problems that information presents (how could I possibly have time to think about it when I haven't yet been able to get through the 1,379 emails in my Inbox?), but it seems that most of the innovation around communications in this century has been of the incremental variety. It has amplified the greatest achievements of the 20th century, making information more abundant but not more useful.

I sense we are reaching a moment of maximum overload. We all know people who are Facebook refusers, who keep low digital profiles and aren't reliable on the common platforms, but most of us would never bow out entirely. We're too afraid we'd miss something important. Instead, we arrange to take our digital sabbaticals in hopes that for someone, somewhere, a big idea—the solution to the 21st century's biggest information problem--will emerge.

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About This Author
Jessi Hempel
Jessi Hempel
Senior Writer, Fortune

Jessi Hempel is a New York-based technology writer for Fortune. She has written extensively about digital media, online advertising and social networking. Before joining Fortune in July 2007, Hempel worked at BusinessWeek and most recently served as their innovation department editor. Hempel is a graduate of Brown University and received a Masters in Journalism from The University of California at Berkeley.

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