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Ambient Overload

Valerie asks if any of us have tried to do the kind of daily audit that Henry Cloud recommends. Somewhat sheepishly I confess that I've been doing that for over 20 years.

"Where does the time go?"  people say, wistfully.  In my case, I could tell you.  Yes, it's a little OCD I suppose.  I think of that senator from Florida who took a lot of ribbing a few years ago for tracking all of his daily activities in little notebooks.  I'm not quite as manic as he was -- but I kind of understand the impulse.

The particular context of the discussion we were having was figuring out how to arrange the time in your life in order to have the life that you want. What Cloud calls the audit (what I call my "day logs") is just a tool for helping you see where your time goes so you can make better choices.  It's all about choices.

I just finished reading Turkle's "Alone Together."   That I am not a social person protects me a bit from the excesses of constant connection that Turkle worries about.  I don't have a smart phone (yet). When we were at Disney a couple of weeks ago, I didn't post my status to Facebook because I didn't feel that people needed to know where I was.  (My mom and the people I work with knew -- that's enough). 

Clay Shirky will be one of the major speakers at the MLA meeting this year.  (Shirky, Geoff Bilder, and me. Hmmm.)  I'm looking forward to Shirky's talk and hope I can incorporate some of what he says into my own.   (He kicks things off on Sunday, I'm the Monday morning speaker).  I  expect that I'll disagree with much of what he says -- I usually do. He has a much sunnier view of social technologies than I do and I think he is flat out wrong about what their impact on politics and culture is.  That's okay -- he's thought-provoking and his reputation is as a really good speaker.

But I'm thinking about him now as I'm thinking about managing time and dealing with connectivity in the context of a post that Nick Carr put up earlier this month on different kinds of information overload. He quotes Shirky saying, "It's not information overload. It's filter failure." This is the pleasantly optimistic view of a lot of the techno-geeks. The more information, the better -- we just have to build better tools to sort it all out, and that, of course, is just going to happen because that's what we're so good at doing.  (This is a point of view that has been thoroughly debunked by David Levy, who doesn't get nearly as much attention as he deserves in these discussions.)

Carr approaches it by saying that it's more complicated than Shirky thinks (most things are). "Information overload actually takes two forms... situational overload and ambient overload."

"Situational" is what we tend to think of -- it's the needle in the haystack problem. This is what librarians worry about. With all the stuff out there, how do we get you to the piece that you need?

But Carr says, this isn't really the problem. We are building better tools to deal with this and when we say that we're suffering from information overload, this is not the kind of overload that we're referring to. "Ambient overload," he says, is that we're surrounded with so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the pressure of keeping up. This is what prevents us from focusing. This is what continually distracts us.

Better filters aren't going to solve this problem. While they winnow out the stuff we're not interested in, they deliver vastly greater amounts of stuff that we ARE interested in. So we're still overwhelmed.

We don't need better tools. We need a kind of daily discipline that enables us to focus on the things that are of most value to us. This is what Cloud is trying to get at with his daily audits, and the other techniques he discusses.  Every moment that we spend is a moment of choices. What kind of a life do you want to lead?  Make better choices.


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