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Information overload is a transitional problem, says computer scientist

STANFORD -- Remember the first time that you made a phone call and got an answering machine? If you are like many people, you probably didn't know quite how to respond.

That was because the answering machine was the first fundamental technological change in the telephone in decades. As a result, it took time to adapt. By now most people are accustomed to these devices. In fact, many callers are upset when they can't leave a message. But when answering machines were new, they caused widespread confusion and mixed emotions.

In the area of information technology, a similar process is going on. One of the side effects of these changes is a widespread feeling of information overload. But the problem isn't the growing amount of information, per se, but the fact that individuals have not had a chance to adapt to the fundamental changes that are occurring in information technology, according to Terry Winograd, Stanford professor of computer science.

In a keynote speech at the spring symposium series of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence that met on campus last week, Winograd presented some of his views on the social impact of the changes taking place in how people gather information.

"Technological changes are disrupting the established patterns of getting information that people developed by watching their parents, friends and colleagues. People used to subscribe to a newspaper, a few magazines, and went to the library every so often to get the information they needed. But the new medium cuts right across that pattern and, right now, things are changing so fast that no one can fully adapt," Winograd said.

Nature of traditional information sources

Traditional information sources make different demands on our attention. Telephones are pre-emptive: They demand our immediate attention. The same is true for television news. Newspapers, magazines and material that comes in the mail are available but not intrusive. People must take the initiative to use them.

"Over decades people have developed a sense of what is acceptable and unacceptable in each of these forms," Winograd said. "We tolerate a lot more junk mail than we do junk phone calls. Famous people seldom answer their phones themselves: They have a secretary who filters calls for them."

Nearly everyone uses traditional information technologies like the newspaper and telephone in the same way. That is not the same for new information technologies like electronic mail, however. Some people treat e-mail as preemptive. Their computer beeps at them every time they receive a new message. Other people may check their electronic mail daily or weekly. "Because these new technologies affect different people in such different ways, it's much harder to develop a social norm to handle them," he said.

Although the way in which people get information is changing, what remains important to people is not how much information they get, but the relevance and quality of that information, Winograd argued.

Search for relevance

New technology is greatly increasing the accessibility of large quantities of information. Instead of going physically to the neighborhood library, or the Library of Congress, or the libraries of any number of universities around the world, people can obtain an increasing amount of the information that these libraries contain through a few keystrokes on a personal computer.

Much of the current effort in computer and library science has focused on developing ways for people to locate the information they want in vast electronic databases. Still, there undoubtedly will be a demand for specialized guides to this information. In fact, specialized third-party electronic publications of this sort are beginning to spring up. Frequently, these are electronic guides to the location of information on specific topics, much as television guides provide dates, times and channels for TV programming. As a result, increasingly it should become possible to find electronic information sources that closely fit an individual's interests, he said.

This is possible because the economics of electronic publishing are much different from print or broadcast. Because of the relatively high cost of production, old-fashioned information sources like television, newspapers, magazines and even books have had to appeal to relatively large audiences to be successful.

"There are some people who claim that we will be able to do away with publishers altogether. But there are some very valuable services that publishers have supplied that still must be performed," Winograd said.

Problem of credibility

One of these functions is to provide credibility. "Compared to a type-written manuscript, a bound book with a publisher's imprint has tremendous credibility. Similarly, the newspaper format automatically confers a large amount of credibility," he said.

According to the computer scientist, there is nothing comparable yet in the electronic media, "where all the information is electronic bits and bytes that could have come from anywhere." Providing methods for establishing the credibility of electronic information is an area to which experts should be giving more attention, he said.

In the academic world, the publishing function is increasingly being assumed by professional societies that have a vested interest in maintaining the quality of scholarly publications. But the picture is not yet clear regarding publications for public consumption, he said.

Changing role of publishers

Currently, publishers perform a conglomeration of different roles. These include selecting and editing manuscripts, promotion and marketing, production, distribution and acting as an economic intermediary for authors. "All these roles are grouped together for historic reasons and probably will not remain together," Winograd said.

Then again, maybe the idea of "electronic publishing" as analogous to print publishing is misleading, he continued.

In the area of developing educational courses, at least, the advent of multimedia has meant that the publishing process is becoming increasingly like movie production. "If you want to develop a best-selling French language course, you need actors and lush French scenery. They are as important as getting the grammar right. The result is a multimillion- dollar production. So, maybe a better metaphor is the studio," he said.

For those who find all this change unsettling, Winograd has some reassurance: "Things are bound to settle down sooner or later. Think back to the first part of the century and the telephone. There for a while the technology was continually changing, but then it stabilized and didn't change much for decades."



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