19.02.2023 change 19.02.2023

Unnecessary information is like garbage dumped in the forest, says physicist

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We should protect the information space like we protect forests. Unnecessary information is like garbage that threatens the entire ecosystem, says Professor Janusz Hołyst, a physicist from the Warsaw University of Technology.

“It took many years to change society's thinking on dumping garbage in the forest, reducing air pollution emissions and looking at green areas as an ecosystem. We must make the same transformation in thinking about unnecessary information that clutters our living space and seriously harms not only our health, but also our very existence,” he says.

Information ecology is a term that Hołyst wants to promote in his latest research project. Together with scientists from 15 centres around the world, he will study the impact of information overload not only on individuals, but also entire communities. He also invited two state information agencies (from Austria and Slovenia) to collaborate in the OMINO (Overcoming Multilevel INformation Overload) project.

“I share the view that the evolution of the Universe, and thus also the evolution of life on Earth and the evolution of society, depends on the processes of information production and transfer. For several years I have been working on something called hierarchical systems - that is, we have several levels of organization of nature. I'm trying to study and understand how these levels affect each other,” says Hołyst.

Continuing, he says: “I want to find out after how many unsolicited calls from telemarketers my brain will have such problems with concentration that I will not be able to prepare well for a lecture. It is interesting to know when information overload will occur at the level of an individual, and when at the level of a group. We want to create information overload models that will show what happens and at what levels.

“Today, companies do not incur high costs for making telephone calls to private persons, but perhaps that should change?” 

In a similar way, the professor designs his visions for managing people.

“When the director of an organization overwhelms employees with an excess of information, reporting and demands, it will first result in overloading (and, consequently, illness) of individual people, and then it will disrupt the work of entire teams. As a result, it will have a real impact on the condition of the entire company,” Hołyst explains. 

To test the multilevel impact of information overload, the OMINO project will involve researchers representing both science and humanities - physicists, computer scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, ethicists, sociologists, management specialists, and journalists

Hołyst emphasizes that when developing the concept of the project, he focused primarily on its social function.

“Information is as essential to life as air, water and food. One of our fundamental rights is the right to information. But when this information is of poor quality, it begins to threaten our health.” explains Hołyst.

“The choice of information is like the choice of food. We can eat fast food, but we should not do it too often, because then it will affect our health. What I want to say is that everything starts with a single person's decision.”

He admits that he does not yet know whether his team will be able to develop something like a 'nutritional value' label for consumed information, but if the topic of information ecology becomes more understandable and fashionable, then - he says - it will be a great achievement.

Two state news agencies (from Austria and Slovenia) have been invited to participate in the project. Thanks to previous cooperation in the European project RENOIR (Reverse ENgineering of sOcial Information pRocessing), scientists created an IT system that helps track who, apart from subscribers, uses, processes and steals information created by a news agency. Hołyst believes that news agencies play a significant role in ensuring the 'ecology of information'.

“The primary role of a news agency is to mass-produce information that is used by other media. I want to revive the debate about what information is for, how it shapes us, and whether all information is worth sending out into the world. Populists feed on 'junk information', so news agencies have a key role to play in caring for the condition of democracy and the condition of entire societies,” Hołyst concludes.

Find out more on the project website.

PAP - Science in Poland, Urszula Kaczorowska

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