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.

Advertisements

One of the great things about English is the room for new words that do what no existing word can do: artsy, carjacking, detox, email, and so on. When I read Maggie Jackson’s comments about the erosion of attention on Marci Alboher’s blog, I knew it was time to introduce a neologism that I’d like to see quickly become standard English. Conjobulation is the state of having so many projects to do and so many errands to run and so many familial pressures to manage and so many interruptions to recover from that sober individuals can be sitting at a stoplight and suddenly have no idea where they are supposed to be going, that they can be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly have no idea what they are talking about, that they can wake in the middle of the night in a panic but have no idea which problem woke them up.

I’d certainly been conjobulated plenty of times, but was stuck with such mundane and limited descriptions as too busy, stressed, harried, swamped and overwhelmed. Words like inundated, drowning, and snowed under were stretches at best and did not have the right feel. Confounded, crazed, and bewildered are great words, but they don’t communicate the external nature of the pressure.

Then one day a couple of years ago, my wife was driving and discussing a number of “issues” and forgot where she was going. A native Spanish speaker who has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, she blurted out that she was conjobulated, and I knew she’d hit upon the perfect word. We have used it successfully ever since – successful in that when one of us says we are conjobulated the other knows precisely what is meant. It certainly captures the erosion of attention and focus that plagues our lives today.

A search on Google has revealed that a couple of others have hit upon this word: here, here, and one I won’t link to, but they don’t seem to have recognized the value of their find. I have added conjobulation to my MS Word dictionary. I suggest you do the same, and I hope you’ll begin using it whenever you get the chance. I’m sure if you use it, even internationally, it will almost always be immediately understood. As soon as I submit this blog post, I’m going to submit conjobulated to the Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary. I hope that some of my favorite language bloggers, such as Dan Santow, John McIntyre, and Language Log, will weigh in on its merit. And any help you can provide – by using it in writing and blogging about it – is appreciated.

By encouraging the adoption of conjobulation, we may actually spur research into how to combat it.

I only hope I’m not too conjobulated to finish this project.