Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
We obtain information through learning to become, hopefully, knowledgeable and this is achieved through the communication of data. This communication is achieved through our five senses despite a belief by some in a mystical third-eye and the gifts of telepathy and ESP.
Mankind’s communication abilities depend on sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. This basic toolbox of senses has been augmented, or some say ‘lessened’, over millennia through education and the evolution of culture and technology as our civilizations rise, and eventually, fall.
Information has been passed on through educational processes but in today’s “Information Age” the amount available is at an all-time history high. The information superhighway and global interconnectedness makes access easy, but why do projects and ventures still fail despite readily accessible information and cries of ‘overload’?
A cursory Internet search showed that in 2020 we generated about 900 exabytes (9×1020pieces) of information. This incredible quantity was created from the Internet, Television, Twitter, YouTube, advertising, and online gaming amongst others. In 2014 this was 300 exabytes while in 1984 it was ‘only’ some 85 exabytes. This is a colossal amount but businesses and projects can also generate far more information than in bygone years as we flounder in this computer age.
The growth of information is exponential and this contributes to ‘information overload’ with an average of 400 megabytes per person per day globally but a mindboggling 34 gigabytes (34×109 bytes) for Americans. This ‘infobesity’ confuses and overwhelms people and formulating rational decisions becomes difficult.
“Don’t allow (all of) the facts to get in the way of a good decision” can be a silent murmur by decision makers as they juggle with the glut of information available. But, if there is insufficient information the dearth of facts also becomes a problem and ‘underload’ results. Of course, this is on the basis that information is available and is not being withheld either innocently or maliciously.
‘Information underload’ occurs when we cannot access sufficient or appropriate, but available information in a timely manner. This results from either a lack of technology, a lack of education or a lack of money. Underload can plague the developing world but it can also affect projects and other business ventures. Access to information is power and keeping people in the dark is a surefire way to retaining power, or at least keeping people and organisations under control.
Possession of information and intellectual property can be a real money-spinner. Information possessors, rather than metaphorically teaching people how to fish and fend for themselves, sell their fish and sustain their own pond. “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king” goes the saying and he or she that is in the know can control others. Such “economy of information” may be morally wrong but this denial of information is all but uncommon. After all, “Information is power” as they also say.
Underload also occurs even though information is readily available. However, recipients deciding consciously that they don’t want it despite the knowledge that they need it, should be considered as depraved as they act in self-deprivation. Underload also occurs because of naivety, inexperience, and arrogance but in any combination this is plain incompetence. Unfortunately, underload also occurs because available information is not delivered or received effectively or is deliberately withheld, manipulated or miscommunicated.
Sensory Disorders and Assimilation
Some 2,500 years ago Confucius professed “I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand” when it came to learning. Two of our five main senses are fundamental to learning and providing the brain with stimuli. These senses, and how we use and control them, can make all the difference between the effective communication of information or contributing to underload.
We humans have an inherent mismatch between the rates at which we acquire data through our senses and the speed at which our brains process it. Our brains can process 400 billion bps (bits per second); our body delivers information thousands of times slower at around 10 million bps but our conscious mind is only aware of around some 2,000 bps. We process this data at between 120 and 40bps is processed, but it’s typically only 60 bps.
There are similar disparities in the speed with which our senses acquire data and the significantly reduced speed at which it’s processed:
|Sense / Skill||Acquisition Speed (bps)||Processing Speed (bps)|
|Sight||10,000,000||40 – 60|
|Hearing||1,000,000||30 – 40|
|Touch||1,000,000 – 100,000||30|
Although sight and hearing are at the forefront of our senses how often do we listen without hearing or look without seeing and that includes failings to register body language. Our other senses are important too and how often do we ‘smell a rat’, or have a ‘gut feel’ about something, while some experiences can ‘leave a bad taste in our mouths’ or make our ‘skin crawl’.
Our sensory perception is also affected by physical and mental capacities. When it comes to sight and sound the average person reads at 240-300 per minute (30-50 bps), speaks at around 250 per minute (~40 bps) and hears at around 400 per minute (~70 bps). We see at 60 bps; so, there is often a mismatch between the speed we see at, the speed at which we can speak, and the speed at which we hear; it’s worth remembering we can read and hear faster than we speak.
These mismatches can cause inattention and possibly boredom but the result is communication failure. “Wordy” .ppt presentations are often ineffective; most people will have read a slide before the orator has even cleared his or her throat. Why give a presentation when the medium of communication is written? And, on having read the slide some people will then move to texting on their ‘phone, or peer out of a window, our have their own private chinwag. But do they have the sensory capacity to do both, or are they merely bored and ahead of the game?
Successful transfer needs alignment, if the wavelength and frequency of transmission and receipt are aligned there is resonance rather than extinction or noise. Active listening and resonating the message can contribute to such resonance rather than argumentative positioning. “Being on the same page” or ‘in-sync” are all euphemisms for harmonious communication rather than a cacophony of discord and the failure to make sense of ineffective data transfer which defies the risk of it being remembered, let alone understood.
Information is best transmitted at an optimum speed reflecting the speed at which data can be processed. Too fast and information is lost, too slow and it may be ignored through attention deficiency.
People hear but don’t necessarily listen, oftentimes they anticipate what is going to be said and, in doing so engage their brain into formulating a reply rather than understanding. Hence, it may be better to speak faster rather than slower and mesh with their sensory speeds. When presenting a slide full of words, a picture may more effective and if your picture paints a thousand words this is 12 times more effective than reading and the audience can still listen to you.
The mind is a powerful machine and needs to be stimulated at the right speed; and just like a machine if it’s in the wrong gear or idling it is of little or no use. “An idle mind is the Devil’s playground” and it may be worth remembering that if our minds aren’t engaged properly there will be information underload and the risk of sub-optimal decisions will be a reality.
Malcolm Peart is an UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.