YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

INFORMATION OVERLOAD : What to Do When Anxiety Cripples You

January 22, 1989| From the book "Information Anxiety" by Richard Saul Wurman. Copyright 1989 by Richard Saul Wurman, to be published by Doubleday in February.

ONCE, PHONE service came from a single company, computers were used only by rocket scientists and watching television meant choosing one of three major networks. Today, the information assault is on. There are 125 long-distance phone companies in California alone. Computers have revolutionized everything from hand-held calculators to household appliances. And 1,388 TV stations crowd the airwaves.

Want just the facts? If you went to the Library of Congress and looked at one book, manuscript or other library resource each minute eight hours a day, five days a week, it would take you more than 688 years to see all 85,895,835 items. (That's up from 59,890,533 in 1969.) The size of the average American newspaper has more than doubled since 1970 to 91 pages, and we spend 45 minutes a day reading it--though that is just 10 minutes more than a decade ago. The average Sunday paper in 1970 had 145 pages; in 1986 it had 351.

Even convenience is increasingly complicated. One videocassette recorder--with 35 buttons on its remote control--takes salespeople about 45 minutes per customer to explain. The instruction manual is 35 pages thick. Little wonder, then, that a Circuit City salesman in Torrance says 20% of the 50 VCRs the store sells every day are eventually returned by people who can't figure them out.

Richard Saul Wurman, developer of the Access guides, including "L.A. Access," and creator of the "Smart" Yellow Pages, specializes in making information of all kinds easy to find, use and digest. In this preview of his book, "Information Anxiety," he describes symptoms of the malady of the Information Age, and ways to keep from drowning in the data stream.

Illustrated by J. T. Steiny


INFORMATION ANXIETY is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. It happens when information doesn't tell us what we want or need to know.

Our relationship to information isn't the only source of information anxiety. We are also made anxious by the fact that our access to information is often controlled by other people. We are dependent on those who design information, on the news editors and producers who decide what news we will receive, and by decision makers in the public and private sector who can restrict the flow of information. We are also made anxious by other people's expectations of what we should know, be they company presidents, peers or even parents.

Almost everyone suffers from information anxiety to some degree. We read without comprehending, see without perceiving, hear without listening. It can be experienced as moments of frustration with a manual that refuses to divulge the secret to operating a videocassette recorder or a map that bears no relation to reality. It can happen at a cocktail party when someone mentions the name Allan Bloom and the only person you know by that name is your dentist. It can also be manifest as a chronic malaise, a pervasive fear that we are about to be overwhelmed by the very material we need to master to function in this world.


IF THE "In" basket in your office casts a shadow like Annapurna over your desk and the mere mention of the word information makes you cringe and moan, chances are that you're suffering from information anxiety. But if you're not sure, the following behaviors are indications that dealing with information might be a problem in your life.

Chronically talking about not keeping up with what's going on around you.

Feeling guilty about that ever-higher stack of periodicals waiting to be read.

Nodding your head knowingly when someone mentions a book, an artist or a news story that you have never heard of before.

Finding that you are unable to explain something that you thought you understood.

Blaming yourself for not being able to follow the instructions for putting a bike together.

Refusing to buy a new appliance or piece of equipment because you are afraid you won't be able to operate it.

Feeling depressed because you don't know what all of the buttons on your VCR are for.

Buying high-tech electronics because you feel that, through osmosis, you'll become more technologically knowledgeable.

Calling "The Society of Mind" "prophetic" even though you couldn't even understand the book review of it, which is all you read.

Looking down at your digital watch to jot down the exact time in an office building logbook even though you know that no one really cares.

Giving time and attention to news that has no cultural, economic or scientific effect on your life.

Filling out a form and feeling compelled to fill in every blank.

Reacting emotionally to information that you don't really understand--like not knowing what the Dow Jones is but panicking when you hear that it has dropped 500 points.

Thinking that the person next to you understands everything you don't.

Being too afraid or too embarrassed to say, "I don't know."

Los Angeles Times Articles