Lawyers Journal

Breaking through the information logjam

Today, in the Information Age, we think of ourselves as being uniquely inundated with information.
But nearly two millennia ago, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, "What is the use of having countless books and libraries, whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is not instructed, but burdened by the mass of them, and it is much better to surrender yourself to a few authors than to wander through many."
Still, technology does make the pace of life faster today than in bygone days, and information technology has a way of forcing more data on us that we can handle. To be truly useful, information must be converted to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom.
Fortunately, information technology can ameliorate the problem of information overload - often called "infoglut" - as well as aggravate it. It's how we use the technology that counts.
Here are some suggestions on how to manage the information coming your way:
Filter the info-wheat from the into-chaff. Who reading this right now isn't flooded with a gazillon e-mail messages each week, even each day. In response, some people have taken the draconian measure of not responding to or even reading e-mail, feeling that if the message is really important, the sender will follow-up with a phone call or fax.
But much is inevitably lost this way. A better approach is to set up "bozo filters" or rules in your e-mail program. Modern e-mail programs let you automatically direct junk messages into the trash as well as important messages into specific folders or mailboxes where they'll get your immediate attention.
You typically instruct the program to look for keywords in the incoming messages' "From" or "Subject" fields or body of the message and tell it what to do next. With unsolicited mass mailings, or "spam," don't ask to be taken off the list or you may increase the spam you receive from unscrupulous senders.
If you follow Internet discussion groups - and much valuable inside information can be gleaned by doing so - you also can use technology to better manage your time. If one or more individuals habitually leaves belligerent, off-topic, overly chatty or otherwise time-wasting messages, you can set up a "kill file" or "kill filter" so that you'll be sparred seeing that person's messages in the future.
Similarly, you can set up a "watch filter" that alerts you to any messages that contain keywords you choose. If you're pressed for time, you can ignore all other messages. Alternately, with Usenet discussion groups, you can avoid reading irrelevant messages by searching for keywords using Google Groups, at http://groups.google.com.
If you're searching for information on the Web using a search engine, you can save time by taking time to learn the site's advanced search procedures.
Another option is to use a Web clipping service that automatically searches for and delivers news and other information about topics you specify. A number of the free clipping services fell victim to the dot-com implosion, though My Yahoo, at http://my.yahoo.com, and Moreover Technologies, at http://www.moreover.com, are still going strong. (Moreover provides pay services for businesses as well). Industrial-strength tools such as DialogWeb's Alerts, at http://www.dialogweb.com, can be worth their price for critical information needs.
Practice good information hygiene. Don't add to others' infoglut, and ultimately your own, by forwarding joke or other irrelevant messages to those who may not have the time for them. Cc your own messages thoughtfully, not indiscriminately.
Keep your e-mail messages to one screen whenever possible and use an informative subject line. Use other technologies instead of e-mail, such as the telephone, when you expect a lot of back-and-forths - it will be a lot quicker.
If you're involved in creating Web pages, try to keep each page to a screen or two, and put the most important information up front. Break up pages with informative subheads so readers can get the gist of what you're saying with a quick scan.
When creating business documents, use executive summaries whenever possible. Wield clear, concise language to communicate, not bureaucratise to impress (and often confound).
Avoid time-wasting temptations. Surfing the Web can be the ultimate information timesink, with ever-more-intriguing but ever-less-relevant links beckoning you on. Using an instant messaging or chat program can bring greater efficiency to collaboration, or it can degenerate into mere chat.
To manage e-mail discussions, selectively respond to e-mail and match the length of your response to how eager you are to converse. A short, polite response indicates you've received the other person's message but need to move on.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book "Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway." He can be reached at [e-mail reidgold] or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association