[Reposted from the Red Herring blog, ca. 2005.]
Let me begin with a confession. I spend most of my working life in front of a computer, and I suspect a fair amount of that time is wasted. I check my e-mail several times an hour. I regularly scan my RSS feeds for new posts. I visit news sites, just in case they've updated the list of breaking new stories. I can follow hyperlinks from one end of the Internet to the other if I'm not careful.
It's all the electronic equivalent of bouncing your leg up and down, or ripping a napkin apart. And I don't need to be this wired. It doesn't help my work or thinking; to the contrary, these information-era equivalents nervous tics are just distractions. Yet I do them.
I'm hardly alone. Some of my friends lead lives that require Blackberries; others have Blackberries that take over their lives. A recent Yahoo-OMD study of 28 people forced to go offline for two weeks shows how dependent—both in the functional, and the emotional sense—people become to being connected. According to The Atlantic Monthly, "Across the board, participants reported withdrawal-like feelings of loss, frustration, and disconnectedness after the plug was plug was pulled." Indeed, "[t]he temptation to go online was so great that the participants were offered "life lines"—one-time, one-task forays onto the Web—to ease their pain." Add to this the recent Pew Internet Survey study that found that Internet users are spending more time online, and less watching TV, and you get a picture of growing numbers of people turning productivity tools into weapons of self-distraction.
It's just the latest evidence confirming the truism that we live in an age of information overload. How did this happen? And is it going to get worse?
It should come as little surprise that these tools are changing the way we experience and use time. It's happened before.
It retrospect, it now seems that much of the nineteenth century was a long experiment in changing our perceptions of space and time. Cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch argued that rail travel was affected the way Europeans thought about space and geography, and that the telegraph and electric light promoted a new view (metaphorically and literally) of urban space.
Stephen Kern, in his brilliant but controversial book The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, argued that the growth of news and mass media, rapid travel by train and steamship, telegraph and telephone, mass migration, and avant-garde art movements like Futurism, all dramatically change European perceptions of space and time around the turn of the ceutnry. Space seemed more fractured, with fewer parts connecting or blending into each other; time was experienced as disjointed and discontinuous. It wasn't just Picasso or Marinetti who had this experience, Kern contends: millions had their perceptions of space and time reworked, thanks in large part to technology.
So information overload is but one expression of a bigger phenomenon: a dance between our prior perceptions of space and time, and new perceptions made possible by new tools. It''s also worth noting that information overload isn't a single activity with a single cause. Information overload is a state of mind and way of behaving, not just an object condition.
The number of devices or programs that we interact is one source of overload. We tend to experience the same amount of information coming from one source differently than we do the same amount coming from multiple sources. There's a difference between having lots of information coming from one source, and having to keep track of mail, blog posts, appointment reminders, Web sites, and IM conversations. Add a cell phone and printed sources, and the feeling of overload can accelerate rapidly.
Another source is the feeling that certain devices demand near-constant attention. An e-mail program that checks the server every five minutes is a greater hazard to most users' concentration than one that checks its mail every hour.
Complexity is another contributor to overload. Computers software that behaves erratically, hard-to-use cellphone, automotive telematic systems that are hard to use while actually driving—all of these can contribute to a sense that not only are our individual lives more unstable and complex, but that our built world is, too. Our personal overload is an example of a bigger social phenomenon.
What's important to understand is that information overload is not a consequence of any single technology or device, nor is it something that flows naturally from a machine's design. It's something that grows out of the relationships that we develop with tools, and the things behind them. Being connected makes it easier for other people to pull your strings.
If information overload doesn't have any single source, it probably doesn't have any single solution, either.
One obvious answer is to consciously turn off. I don't mean just turn off individual devices, but have times when you are completely unconnected: no cell phone, no pager, no laptop, no iPod. (Well, maybe the iPod.) David Levy, an information scientist and professor at the University of Washington, doesn't touch is computer during the Sabbath, from Friday evening to Saturday evening; the habit has led him to think deeply about the nature of information overload, and how we can deal with it as individuals and a society.
But this can only take us so far. (Levy admits that he fairly lunges for his e-mail once the Sabbath is over.) To some degree, we might expect devices themselves to become smarter about when they should attract our attention. Children learn is when not to bother their parents—to read the social cues that tell them to leave another person alone, regardless of their own personal impulses. Ambient computing efforts are moving in this direction; but personally I'm skeptical that there can be a technical or design solution to the problem. Humans seem to be hard-wired to pay attention to visually interesting things, and to have a great capacity for distraction. To paraphrase cognitive scientist Andy Clark put it, part of our brain is designed to do philosophy, but most of it is designed to play Frisbee.
Ultimately, the dream of being free of information overload will probably always remain that—a dream, but one that maintains a constant distance, as we learn to deal with wider, more varied, and faster streams of information. In an age of always-on computing, the smartest devices would be the ones that turn themselves off. But they would have to be as smart as their users to know when to do that. And if they were that smart, they'd run the risk of becoming as addicted to humans as we are to them.