Situational and Ambient Overload

Nicholas Carr, Roughtype:

One of the traps we fall into when we talk about information overload is that we’re usually talking about two very different things as if they were one thing. Information overload actually takes two forms, which I’ll call situational overload and ambient overload, and they need to be treated separately.

Situational overload is the needle-in-the-haystack problem: You need a particular piece of information – in order to answer a question of one sort or another – and that piece of information is buried in a bunch of other pieces of information. The challenge is to pinpoint the required information, to extract the needle from the haystack, and to do it as quickly as possible. Filters have always been pretty effective at solving the problem of situational overload. The introduction of indexes and concordances – made possible by the earlier invention of alphabetization – helped solve the problem with books. Card catalogues and the Dewey decimal system helped solve the problem with libraries. Train and boat schedules helped solve the problem with transport. The Reader’s Guide to Periodicals helped solve the problem with magazines. And search engines and other computerized navigational and organizational tools have helped solve the problem with online databases.

Whenever a new information medium comes along, we tend to quickly develop good filtering tools that enable us to sort and search the contents of the medium. That’s as true today as it’s ever been. In general, I think you could make a strong case that, even though the amount of information available to us has exploded in recent years, the problem of situational overload has continued to abate. Yes, there are still frustrating moments when our filters give us the hay instead of the needle, but for most questions most of the time, search engines and other digital filters, or software-based, human-powered filters like email or Twitter, are able to serve up good answers in an eyeblink or two.

Situational overload is not the problem. When we complain about information overload, what we’re usually complaining about is ambient overload. This is an altogether different beast. Ambient overload doesn’t involve needles in haystacks. It involves haystack-sized piles of needles. We experience ambient overload when we’re surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the neverending pressure of trying to keep up with it all. We keep clicking links, keep hitting the refresh key, keep opening new tabs, keep checking email in-boxes and RSS feeds, keep scanning Amazon and Netflix recommendations – and yet the pile of interesting information never shrinks.

The cause of situational overload is too much noise. The cause of ambient overload is too much signal.

Writer’s Room


In the age of the computer the writer's office or study will increasingly resemble the customer service desk of an ailing small business.

-- Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H. Lawrence (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997), 150.

Collections and Exhibits

MoCA: Museum of Chinese in the Americas. Bad Beijing architecture. Drawings by second graders of the human body. A huge collection of Photoshop tutorials. The British Library’s Database of Bookbindings. Stephen Downes’s Index of Logical Fallacies. Kevin Sherry’s Sweater Project. Jason Patient’s cycling images. Edward Tufte’s argument against PowerPoint presented as a PowerPoint presentation.


Craig Calhoun, “The Class Consciousness of Frequent Travelers: Toward a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism” (2002). C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” (1959). Lion Kimbrough, How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think (2003). A treasury of Tom Swift texts. An infinity of George W. Bush speeches. NASA’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Christian Bök’s Eunoia. The 2004 Bulwer-Lytton Awards. Seymour Hersh’s address to the ACLU (July 8, 2004) on the unfolding story of American war crimes. People write exactly one hundred words a day and leave them at a website. Discussions among testy copyeditors. An outline of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A scientific method FAQ. The 1,000 Journals Project. A chronology of the secretarial profession. US Presidents’ inaugural addresses and state of the union messages from George Washington to the present. Online books at Project Gutenberg and 100 top American speeches, most with links to .mp3 audio versions. Online book directories: The Online Books Page at The University of Pennsylvania, links to collections and archives at the University of Adelaide, and a collection of links at The British Columbia Digital Library.


The Text Encoding Initiative: “TEI is an international and interdisciplinary standard that helps libraries, museums, publishers, and individual scholars represent all kinds of literary and linguistic texts for online research and teaching, using an encoding scheme that is maximally expressive and minimally obsolescent.” Jeffrey Veen on accessible design, with links to examples. Position Is Everything: a CSS site with an emphasis on designing around browser quirks (good links, too). CSS column layouts compatible with Netscape 4.x (and more here, too). How to use CSS to make line spacing consistent when using superscript and subscript characters. Design Detector pulls an extreme CSS stunt.