information_overload

Speaking of being conjobulated, it’s clear that what’s happening offline is happening online as well, as indicated by a growing number of articles about the problems of information overload and multitasking. I’ve collected a few on The Writing Wiki.

This from an article on The New Atlantis:

“In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, ‘Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.’”

There’s some serious irony in this quote from “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast” by Matt Richtel:

“The E-Mail Addict feature in Gmail is more of a blunt instrument. Clicking the ‘Take a break” link turns the screen gray, and a message reads: ‘Take a walk, get some real work done, or have a snack. We’ll be back in 15 minutes!’”

Get some real work done in fifteen minutes?

And social media just seem to add to the problem. From Betsy Schiffman in a Wired blog post on Web 2.0 Expo Preview: Torture by Information Overload:

“Now that the first burst of enthusiasm for social networking has died, people are realizing that web 2.0 is actually a huge time sink.

“Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Plaxo may have helped foster community and communication, but they’ve also added immensely to the flow of often-interruptive messages that their users receive, leading to information overload and possibly a nasty internet addiction.”

It’s clear that it isn’t just how much information there is but also the messy way it’s delivered. Facebook and Twitter pump out so much information, I feel I have to check in regularly if I don’t want to miss something important, but by design they display all posts as equal, so I have to look at everything, try in vain to distinguish what might be of value from all the noise, and then follow several links, by which time I’ve lost any momentum I had on a project.

Attempts to adjust workplace habits with 15-minute breaks from email or even email-free days are feeble and don’t account for emergent activity, or for the entrenched attitude that the constant information flow has high value.

What’s needed is a fundamental reevaluation of how we relate to technology, but if this happens, it will likely be the result of a slow self-correcting evolution spurred by profit and nurtured by technology itself in the form of user channels that separate important and unimportant flows and artificial intelligence that learns from profiles and usage patterns how to distinguish important information for the user.

Or maybe it really is my age, and young people growing up in the midst of the flow will give the lie to research conducted by their elders and be just as productive and just as scholarly as any other generation. After all, it’s hard to miss the irony of baby boomers –the first generation to grow up watching far too much television, who were still smart enough and productive enough to lead another major technology revolution – now being worried about the participation of their kids and grandkids in a far less passive technology.

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