Information overload, social media and the Internet

Today is Information Overload Awareness Day, the day attention is focused on the crazy state of information overload existing in the world, thanks to ‘the Internet’ (a concept that is becoming more abstract and hazy by the day), social media, blogging, cloud computing, you name it.

And, by writing this blog entry about it, I am of course adding yet another drop to the ocean of information, contributing knowlingly to the ever rising levels of useful and useless information that is threatening to engulf every remaining bit of ‘dry land’ of the world.

It was estimated as long ago as 2008 that information overload is costing the US economy around $900 billion a year, through lowered employee productivity. When numbers get that big, I’m always unsure what they’re called – that’s almost $1 trillion, right? And that number is probably a lot higher by now. The average ‘knowledge worker’ (itself a term that didn’t really exist before the unbounded proliferation of data and information) is said to spend at least 50% of his day ‘managing information’ – sifting through emails, finding and validating ‘facts’, etc. And that is just the productive side of things – even more time is spent lost in the bottomless depths of facebook, twitter, youtube and the like.

If you can’t beat them, overload them…
While we complain about information overload, we all contribute to the problem – me possibly more than many. But at the same time, social media can be an important and effective tool for marketing and communication. I guess it will always be a careful balancing act between too much and too little.
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The sad thing, of course, is that among the dirt there are some real diamonds. There are blogs and opinion pieces, both online and in print, that I try to read on a regular basis, and that I really feel poorer for not having read for a few days due to some work deadline or other crisis. But finding these among the thousands upon thousands of blog posts generated daily can be a real challenge. Even just trying to keep up with WordPress’ daily Freshly Pressed list is an almost impossible task.

I’m sure no amount of awareness creation about the problem of information overload is going to change things – we have gotten too used to having pages upon pages of information on any and every topic we can possibly think of, at our fingertips. And in many ways it’s good. There’s no way I would have been able to do this blog if there wasn’t all kinds of arbitrary facts floating around to tap into. But at the same time, I guess the responsible thing to do is to at least try and limit the amount of data we push out on a daily basis. Which is one of the reasons I prefer blogging to twitter, for example – in compiling a blog post, I like to believe people at least invest a little thought. Tweeting is just too easy and immediate, resulting in the masses mindlessly excreting an ever-growing pile of data-dung (my personal view, of course).

On the topic of excrement – when did Facebook change from being a place where people actually sort-of talked to each other, to a platform where all people do all day are to share ‘cute’ photos and cartoons, and resend arbitrary ‘amusing’ status updates? Facebook used to be a platform I found quite useful to keep in touch with friends and family when we moved to another country, but over the last couple of years the signal to noise ratio has fallen so low that it is hardly worth facebooking anymore.

Oh well…  There I go – one rant about information overload, and I’ve contributed a few hundred more words to the problem.  I think for the rest of this Information Overload Awareness Day I should just switch off all computers, smartphones, TVs and radios, and go mow the lawn or something.

Machine translation, social media and talking like a pirate

Today, as you most likely know, is Talk Like a Pirate Day. Of all the holidays on the silly side of the spectrum, this is surely one of the most famous – the amount of websites and blogs dedicated to the day is mind-boggling, and it even features regularly in the news.

Thanks to smartphones, social media and machine translation, pirate-speak rules the cyber seas for a day.
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My personal theory on the popularity of the day is that it is all thanks to technology, and more specifically machine translation and social media. Thanks to advances in machine translation there are numerous translators available on the web and downloadable as smartphone apps, allowing you to enter a sentence or phrase in English, and instantly get some pirate-speak version of the phrase spat back at you.

And thanks to social media, every poster and tweeter becomes a foul-mouthed pirate for a day, filling up cyberspace with their pirate-speak wisdom.

While many of these pirate-speak translators only perform the most basic word substitutions, with perhaps a small set of additional linguistic rules, the fact remains that machine translation – not long ago still only the subject of science fiction and academic research – has well and truly become part of our daily lives.

Machine translation can be done using a range of different techniques, including rule-based, statistical and example-based translation – different approaches work best in different applications. While no systems have yet achieved the ultimate goal of fully automated, high-quality machine translation of general text, massive progress are still being made, and excellent results have been achieved when applying machine translation within limited, well defined domains, for example weather reports or legal documents. The technology also deals effective with short phrases, making it very useful in search engines, social media sites and the like.

Getting back to Talk like a Pirate Day, here’s the results from a few web-based pirate-speak translators, using as our input the classic opening line from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

“Blimey! He was an barnacle-covered scurvy dog who fished alone in a skiff in thee Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” (

“He be an old man who fished alone in a skiff in th’ Gulf Stream an’ he had gone eighty-four days now without takin’ a fish.”

“The orrrnerrry cuss werrre bein’ an barrrnacle-coverrr’d swashbucklerrr who fish’d like an isle in a skiff in th’ Gulf Strrream and he had gone eighty-fourrr days now without takin’ a fish, and a bottle of rum!.”

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in t’ Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without takin’ a fish.”

Well there you have it – conclusive prove that not all translators are created equal!  Whichever dialect you opt for, have fun and enjoy all the seafaring silliness. 🙂

Occupy Wall Street and the rise of the 99%

It’s hard to believe a year has passed already, but today marks the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement that started on 17 September 2011 in Zuccotti Park in New York City’s Wall Street financial district.

The protest, organised by Adbusters, a Canadian activist group, started with a group of 200 people overnighting in Zuccotti Park, with sleeping bags and blankets. The group grew rapidly and the protest sparked similar actions around the world, becoming one of the most visible and high profile international peaceful protest actions in recent memory.

The original occupation of Zuccotti Park lasted less than 2 months (protesters were forced out of the park on 15 November 2011) but the larger movement continued for three more months, with occupations of banks, corporate headquarters, board meetings etc. in numerous cities across the world.

Protesting against a world built on money and greed.
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The main issues that protesters of Occupy Wall Street, and the wider Occupy Movement, have focused on include corporate greed and corruption (particularly in the financial sector) as well as social and economic inequality. One of the most effective and striking parts of the movement has been their “We are the 99%” slogan – a concise, catchy, thought-provoking statement addressing the huge inequalities that exist in terms of income and wealth distribution between the rich (the 1%) and the poor (the 99%). The movement also suggests that the “99%” suffer as a consequence of the greedy and self-serving actions of a tiny minority.

The “We are the 99%” campaign has ben criticised as being overly simplistic, with many of those being protested against (Corporate CEO’s, bankers, stock traders and the like) falling outside the “1%”, while a number of sport stars and artists (including some celebrities who came out in support of the campaign) actually form part of the vilified few. In terms of the campaign’s effectiveness, however, the New York Times reported that, “Whatever the long-term effects of the Occupy Movement, protesters succeeded in implanting “we are the 99 percent” into the cultural and political lexicon.” Similarly, Paul Taylor from the Huffington Post called the slogan “arguably the most successful slogan since ‘Hell no, we won’t go,'” of Vietnam war era.

The Occupy movement has also been an interesting case study of the use of technology and social media to organise widespread protest actions. Using the hashtag #Occupy, and organising through websites such as Occupy Together protesters have managed to very effectively organise their activities. The protests have also been actively promoted and supported on social media sites like Facebook, with 125 Occupy-related pages being listed on Facebook by mid-October, less than a month after the start of Occupy Wall Street.

Thanks to the global, immediate nature of these communication channels, protests spread internationally at an incredible rate. By 9 October 2011, protests have taken place in almost 100 cities in more than 80 countries.

Protests were initially allowed to carry on without serious interference from authorities. This started to change by mid November – between November and December most major protest camps have been cleared out, with the last camps, in Washington DC and in London at St Paul’s Cathedral, cleared by February 2012.

Looking back a year after the fact, it is difficult to accurately quantify the impact that the Occupy Movement has made in the US and internationally. The terms “Occupy”, “1%” and “99%” have very much become part of global dialogue, and the movement has certainly raised significant awareness regarding income inequality, and the social and political problems that flow from this.

Whether this will have any long term effects, I guess we will have to wait and see.