Pushing Back at Cognitive Overload
December 18, 2007
The best session at the recent Wiley-Blackwell executive seminar was not the panel on institutional repositories that I shared with Ann Okerson and Ellen Finnie Duranceau. Oh, I think we did a fine job, and I was pleased at how we reinforced each other's messages while still presenting our own individual slants on the topic. I think it was good for the assembled publishers to hear, from three librarians, that while IRs are definitely playing a role in the transformation of the scholarly publishing landscape, there is no evidence that they present some sort of open access panacea and challenge to traditional journals. (This is not to say that traditional journals aren't at great risk, just that IRs are not the silver bullet that's going to do them in).
All of the presentations were good, but the one that made the biggest impact on me was David M. Levy's talk on Information Overload. He presented a brief historical tour of the information overload problem, going back to Vannevar Bush's seminal 1945 article. Levy suggests that what we've witnessed since then are several peaks of information overload, each accompanied by technological solutions that promised to provide us with a greater ability to manage that overload, but which inevitably ended up exacerbating it. And he thinks that we're at that point again, as we suffer under the vast weight of email (which we allow to interrupt us continuously, as if the most important thing at any moment is the random email message that has just landed in our inbox), and the overwhelming variety of information sources that flow over us continuously.
What we have lost in all of this is time for contemplation, time to think. And he believes that turning to technology to provide us a solution is the wrong strategy. We need to correct the balance by changing the way that we do things and the way that we respond to the world around us. To the assembled publishers he said we need to publish less -- which requires changing the academic reward structure to privilege quality over quantity.
We were talking a bit between sessions and I mentioned the importance to me of my own morning routine -- the hour or so that I take at the start of every day to write, which is my way of having some protected time to think, to let my thoughts roam. When the travel schedule or work pressures deny me that time, I feel it in the added stress of the day.
Coincidentally, as I was flying home from DC, I was finishing Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. In the penultimate chapter, de Botton invokes Ruskin and his years spent as a drawing teacher. Ruskin taught drawing not because he hoped to turn every student into a master draftsman, but because he believed that drawing helped one to see and to find the beauty that is inherent in all things. It requires patience, it requires one to slow down, it requires one to really look into things and not just past them. It seemed to me that de Botton's message and Levy's were addressing the same need.
It's been a particularly hectic and intense fall, so it's a message that I need to hear. Levy's got a couple of recent articles on the topic that I want to look up -- and read slowly. Things are winding down at the library -- I've got a few meetings this week, but nothing too pressing. And then I'm taking two weeks off. And I'm not making any plans.
This is a theme I come back to again and again. It is my strong belief that the technology has failed us, not because it doesn't work, on the contrary, it works too well. When the electronic revolution began in the early 90s the promise was great. All of these new tools were going to make my life easier, they were going to free me to do the things I really wanted to do. So far, all the technology has managed to do is increase my work-load and increase the pressure in my daily life. I think you have hit the nail on the head here Scott. The problem isn''t so much the technology, as our reaction to it. Why do we feel the need to answer emails immediately? Why do we feel the need to always be connected? Is it a form of self-indulgence? Is it because we want to feel important? It does feed the ego doesn't it. I am so important that I must be connected constantly - someone out there somewhere may need my help, help that only I could provide.
A few years ago I read the biography of Theodore Roosevelt. What most struck me about the book was the fact that Teddy (while president) took the entire summer off. There were no special phones. He didn't even bring White House aides with him. He just took the summer off. There he was, a leader of an entire nation - yet he had the ability to be disconnected for two months. No phones (though they had been invented), no faxes, no emails, no blogs, nothing. And yet, the world went on. The country continued to function. Things got done. There he was, the most powerful man in the country, completely disconnected, not for hours, not for days or even weeks - but for an entire summer. And what did the government do in the case of an emergency? They dispatched an aide by rail out to Long Island when they needed him. If the nation could survive for months on end without the head of state - how come my company can't survive without me for a mere few hours? If your answer is; because times were different then, they didn't have the technology. Then you have indeed understood the point. We have allowed the technology to control us and not the other way around. Theoretically, in its early days, the technology's promise was that it would serve us, instead we serve it. I firmly believe that the bulk of the benefits of the new technology will not accrue to us at all. It will take a generation or two for society to learn how to mold the technology to fit our needs and accommodate a more healthy and rewarding lifestyle. At some point humanity will once again want to stop and think, maybe even take the summer off. Until then... I have to go, someone is text messaging me.
Posted by: MarkD | December 20, 2007 at 01:55 PM
Lynn and I don't answer our home telephone. We let the answering machine do that. If it's somebody we know (usually Marian or my Mom) they know that they're supposed to announce themselves and if we're home and it's convenient for us to talk with them, we'll pick up. When we started doing this a dozen years ago, some people who found out about it felt that we were being rude. That baffled me -- we're being rude and not the people who feel that they can impose their presence on us at any time just because they have our phone number? Amazing.
Same thing with my cell phone. If it rings and your name pops up, I'll answer it, if it is convenient for me. If I don't recognize the number, or if I'm otherwise occupied, I'll let it go into voice mail.
I think there's another element at work with email though -- it's often easier to let oneself be occupied with answering relatively unimportant emails than it would be to spend that time focusing on some difficult problem or project. So while we allow the technology to distract us, it's partly because we want to be distracted from doing things that would actually require more work and more thought.
Posted by: T Scott | December 20, 2007 at 02:16 PM