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Last Updated: Friday, 4 March, 2005, 13:32 GMT
No information overload just yet
Angry woman
Predictions of information overload have not hit Bill yet
Despite thousands of e-mails a day, technology analyst Bill Thompson says he is nowhere near his "information overload" limit.

I have 1,093 e-mails in my inbox. By the time I finish writing this sentence there might be 1,100.

By tomorrow morning, it will probably be nudging 12,000. None of them are spam.

My net service provider has a reasonable spam filter in place now. It seems to catch all the obvious stuff.

I have trained my e-mail client to recognise a lot of the rest.

The others I delete as they arrive - they are pretty easy to recognise from the subject line - and so they do not bother me.

None of them are from mailing lists, either.

List stuff all goes into a folder called, rather unimaginatively I admit, "list stuff", and I look at them periodically to see if there is anything of interest.

All the postings from e-mint and online-news, along with the alerts from FIPR (Foundation for Information Policy Research) and the outraged details of the latest assault on our online liberty from cyber-rights, get filed to be dealt with when time allows.

Time never does allow, of course, but do not tell anyone.

'Do it now'

Around one third of the messages sitting in the inbox are directly concerned with a project I am currently working on that requires co-ordinating a team in Cambridge, London, Madrid and New York, and relies almost entirely on online communications.

While they will stop once the project is over, working as a freelance editor means that they will quickly be replaced by the deluge from the next project.

Despite the dire predictions from some that we will all end up suffering from information overload... I do not think I am anywhere near my limit

Since I live in Cambridge and rather value being able to spend time with my children and my girlfriend, I choose work that can be done from home (or cafes, it is true), so e-mail is bound to be an important part of it.

Another third are work-related in other ways. Some are from people who have read something of mine and want to comment, or support, or tell me just how wrong and misguided I am.

Others are about articles I am working on, talks I am giving, courses I am teaching or projects I am involved with.

And the rest are personal, from friends or family, old colleagues or students - people I have not seen for years or those I had coffee with this morning.

A part of me feels intimidated by the sheer volume of correspondence, but every week or so I take a couple of hours out and go through it all, filing most of it into the relevant folder - a lot goes into one called "DO THIS NOW", but it tends to stay there for weeks.

The stuff that really has to be dealt with stays in the inbox, a constant reminder and irritant.

And yet I do not feel overwhelmed or even close to collapsing under the strain of the daily influx of communications.

Room for more

Despite the dire predictions from some that we will all end up suffering from information overload, the switch from telephone, letter and fax to e-mail as my main form of working communication has given me the capability to manage a far greater volume of communication far more efficiently than ever before - and I do not think I am anywhere near my limit.

I am using Microsoft Outlook as my mail client on my Windows computers, though I use the open source Thunderbird on the iBook.

Like many other Microsoft products, it has taken them a lot of versions to get Outlook right, but it now works for me and I would find it hard to change.

Keeping it fully patched, and setting it so that it does not download images or display messages as HTML by default keeps me a bit safer, and my firewall, anti-virus software and anti-spyware programs do the rest.

So far, and there is always tomorrow, my systems remain uncompromised. I use rules to filter out list stuff, but also to mark messages from specific people or projects by changing their colour or setting a flag.

I also use the search facility, which is much better in the latest release and actually performs well looking for text inside messages.

But I do not use any more sophisticated features, simply because I have not felt the need to. I keep it all, too.

It is very rare for me to delete an e-mail message that is not spam, however trivial it may be, so I have the last four years of my online conversations always available to search through.

Spam e-mails
Spam is not the kind of e-mail filling up Bill's box
All two gigabytes of them.

Admittedly, the complicated tree structure I have created over the years to store my past five years of e-mail history would be meaningless to almost anyone else.

What counts as "work", what as "writing" and what is "politicking" is up to me, and not what you might expect.

And the point at which something moves from being "work in progress" to an archive is often mysterious even to me - I just do it when it feels right. But the whole things works.

So far I have not been tempted to upload it all into Google's gmail and make it a fully indexed and searchable archive, or get one of the third party mail indexing tools.

But knowing that it is a possibility also reassures me that I could cope even if the daily volume of messages increased significantly.

And if I can do it, coming from a generation that never saw a computer in school and remembers the excitement of my first e-mail - received when I was at university in 1983 - just think what my kids are going to be capable of.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

Warnings about junk mail deluge
04 Feb 05 |  Technology
Web guru fights info pollution
13 Oct 03 |  Technology

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