The Email Paradox

Teresa Lunt, vice president, director of Computing Science Laboratory, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)

Why do people immediately think of email when they consider information overload? Various research implies that information overload comes from the number of interruptions we experience during the day. And people experience email as an interruption. So perhaps that is why it is so strongly associated in our minds with information overload. 

But here is the paradox with email. It’s so easy today for people to email: professionally and personally, we are copied on everything and get all kinds of attachments and links to information. In one sense, this constant stream of activity can be a useful way to keep your finger on the pulse of your organization (or your life). But it can also feel like a burden. If someone emailed something you, they think you remember it. But more than likely, it came in with hundreds of other messages and you won’t remember it, you’ll forgot you ever got it. In fact, unless you need it at the time, you won’t even look at it. This is why it is so important to get information just at the time you need it.  

So we really need two things: a way to see a whole lot of activity at a glance to get a sense about what is going on, and a way to get key information delivered to you just when you need it. 

It seems to me that the real information overload problem is that people in business are expected to keep up with many more things than they were in days past. The world is a bigger place, and things are evolving quickly, so there are many more things to keep track of. This means that simply organizing information better, or enabling it to be searched better, doesn’t solve this problem. Somehow we have to have a way of consuming and digesting more of it. Or, in lieu of that, have a sort of lazy, or “just-in-time,” consumption of it. That is, ignore it until we need it. This could work for some kinds of information. The problem is, when we need it, how do we know what the relevant things are that we should know about. Could a system be smart enough to understand this for us?  

I think this is a great area for research. At PARC, we have been working on aspects of this problem for some time.  

Teresa Lunt directs PARC’s CSL research organization, which has a wide range of research activities including ubiquitous computing; embedded sensor networks and ad hoc networking; security and privacy; control software for printing systems; bioinformatics; and ethnography for organizational environments and technology design.

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One Comment

  1. Nathan Zeldes October 19, 2008 - Reply

    Most certainly this is a great area for research – which is why we founded the Information overload research group , to promote collaboration around such research.

    As for the assertion that email contributes to Info Overload because it is an interruption – this is only half the story. Email can be an interruption if you let it (by neglecting to turn off its “new mail” alerts) but it is also a severe component of IO apart from that, because it requires us to clean up an ever-filling Inbox. In general, any stream of information that queues up until processed will contribute to IO; Email just happens to be the most time-consuming and hence frustrating of these streams at this time.

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