Data Overload in the Military

...the screens in jets can be so packed with data that some pilots call them “drool buckets” because, they say, they can get lost staring into them.

It appears the military is bumping up against the limits of peoples ability to absorb and make sense of the streams of data they encounter in their rapidly digitizing field of operations. Myths about people's ability to multitask continue to lead managers astray, I fear. Scientists comment that multitasking actually impedes performance in simulations. If you've ever tried to complete this awareness test, you'll get some idea of these limits.

While well-intentioned, the impulse to add another monitor or another data stream only makes the problem worse for soldiers facing extremely stressful situations. Fundamentals in usability have roots in the military, when aircraft crashes were unexplainably high and researchers determined that standardization of control layout and developing controls with significant tactile differences dramatically reduced error rates. Efforts to "rewire" soldiers to aclimate them to information overload seem foolish to me, as there is only so much change the human brain can accomodate. There is nothing significantly different about the brains of today's 20-year-olds and yesterday's. No amount of video games has made their brains different, but it has acclimated them to this kind of work.

A closer look at integrating data into more holistic dashboards, making data more actionable, and offloading onto the system some tasks so that soldiers can operate better all seem like useful directions, and probably significantly cheaper. This last part is probably of no interest to the contractors supplying expertise and hardware to this effort, however.