Larry Depew is an expert at finding things criminals bury inside computers and communications networks. But he struggles with finding messages...

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Larry Depew is an expert at finding things criminals bury inside computers and communications networks.

But he struggles with finding messages from his daughter.

“She’ll say, ‘Did you get my e-mail?’ ” says Depew, a retired FBI agent who now is director of the New Jersey Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory near Trenton.

“I say, ‘No,’ and she sends from a different account or to a different account because the filters in my e-mail may see something in her e-mail and think it’s spam.”

Sound familiar?

Technology speeds communication, by many measures. But you can have too much of a good thing.

Ask anyone who has faced an overflowing electronic in-box after a few days away from the job, but can’t find the messages or information they need.

E-mails, instant messages, cellphone calls, text messages, RSS feeds, Weblog updates, hundreds of TV channels, satellite radio, electronic billboards, even bottle caps — the information seems to come from every direction. “Pitching” takes on another meaning at Yankee Stadium, where even the innings have sponsors and you’re lucky to be able to talk with your date over the noise.

There are too many passwords to remember. Too many programs and gadgets that need hefty manuals to figure out. Too many interruptions.

Information overload worried Plato and medieval scholars — and they only had to keep up with books.

The technology market research firm International Data estimates 22.3 trillion e-mails will be sent this year. On average, workers must wade through about 40 every day.

That isn’t counting at least 3 billion instant messages relayed daily by America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft, says analyst Samir Sakpal of Frost & Sullivan international industry consultants. Another 81.2 billion text messages flashed onto Americans’ mobile phones last year, Sakpal says.

The numbers add up to a productivity paradox.

Electronic interruptions waste 28 billion man-hours per year in this country, at a cost of $588 billion, concludes a survey of more than 1,000 information workers by the consulting firm Basex.

Many workers can’t resist opening e-mails the instant they arrive, Basex found.

More than the bottom line is at risk.

“Screen-sucking” may be messing up our minds, says psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell. He says prolonged multitasking breeds “attention deficit trait,” a frustrating inability to focus.

“Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” Hallowell writes in the Harvard Business Review. “In a futile attempt to do more than is possible, the brain paradoxically reduces its ability to think clearly.”

In July, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, confirmed Mom was right: People don’t learn as well when doing two things at once.

A study for Hewlett-Packard claims distractions can lower IQs as much as 10 points — a bigger hit than smoking marijuana, according a researchers.

They even might be deadly. Research indicates cellphones and driving are a lethal mix.

Yet multitasking almost certainly will proliferate as the NetGen crowd, weaned on the Web, rises through the ranks.

“The better we get at handling information, the more information we’ll be expected to handle. We’re in a rat race. We’re on a treadmill,” says Quentin Jones, a professor in the computer-science department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Writing in the Encyclopedia of Community, Jones defines information overload as “the sensation of being swamped” when communications outstrip the mind’s processing capacity.

We only can handle seven chunks of information — plus or minus two — at once, psychologists believe. That’s why long phone numbers are tricky.

“The biggest drain on our working memory comes from multitasking, or keeping track of several things at once,” Rutgers University neuroscientist Mark Gluck warns in a textbook that cites dangers of distracted driving. “You may think your driving is just fine, or that you can understand your lecture while you work on other projects, but research has shown that you are probably not operating at as high a level as you think.”

Today’s digital community is forging its own unique pressures. At New Jersey Institute of Technology, Jones is trying to make software act as an information traffic cop, to control interruptions. But he is blunt: No single gadget can sift all the electronic clutter.