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The Unintended Consequences of Information Overload


Twittering on your TV. Googling while driving. When will it end?

When it comes to technological convergence, how much is too much?

While there's no definitive answer, perhaps a statement made by Jeila Foroozani of television manufacturer Vizio at last week's Consumer Electronics Show to Agence France Presse offers a look at the continuing overload:

"Right now we have 25 to 30 widgets. By the end of 2010, we should have about 100 and then we'll just go up from there." The widgets she's referring to are Internet programs that will pop up during television programs.

Indeed, surfing the web while channel surfing seems to be all the rage, at least according to the widget providers. Verizon (VZ) is trumpeting the fact that FiOS customers can access their Facebook and Twitter accounts while watching television, through their "Widget Bazaar," a service not unlike Apple's (AAPL) iTunes Store.

Users can also shop on Amazon (AMZN), rent movies from Netflix (NFLX), bid on eBay (EBAY) auctions, and stream YouTube videos while viewing their favorite shows on Internet-connected TVs.

AT&T (T) is running a suffocating number of commercials about how the company's customers can talk on their mobile phones while simultaneously browsing the web.

And Ford Motor Co. (F) recently unveiled a new version of its on-board entertainment and communications system, Sync, which includes wi-fi, a touchscreen dashboard, and apps from Google (GOOG). (See also Pandora: The Death Knell of Sirius XM.)

Enough already?

Whether or not people want or "need" to update their Twitter via their television is almost beside the point -- knowing that developers are constantly innovating and putting thought into the next big thing is comforting to some.

On the other hand, scientists believe there may be several different downsides to the current information overload -- which shows no signs of abating.

Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, found that when presented with too much visual stimulation, the human brain can only focus on one or two tasks before the mind's processing capacity starts to shut down.

"People can't do it very well, and when they say they can, they're deluding themselves," he said. "The brain is very good at deluding itself."

Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at the University of London, reported that multitasking can knock ten entire points off one's IQ -- the same effect as losing a night's sleep has on cognitive abilities.

So, while too much information may degrade one's ability to concentrate in the short-term, there certainly couldn't be any long-term effects, could there be?

According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition by researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of USC, there are.

She says that lightning-fast news and updates can harm young peoples' sense of morality and, as she told USA Today, make them "indifferent to human suffering" because the "streams of information provided by social networking sites are too fast for the brain's moral compass to process."

"If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states and that would have implications for your morality," she said.

Driving while distracted by Pandora or being distracted by a Facebook update while watching a Gilligan's Island re-run is one thing.

Emotional damage in children is quite another.

When will somebody step in and say, "Enough already?"

Stay tuned…
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