In response to “Overload, Shmoverload”

March 16, 2007 at 9:05 am | Posted in Attention Management | 2 Comments

Information overload sees to be polarized into two camps: one that says it’s a serious problem and another that says it’s just something we need to adapt to. I think I’m more of a centrist. I can appreciate the arguments of both camps, but a lot of the discrepancy seems to come down to fuzzy language and assumptions. The “too much information is bad” camp seems to be talking about useless information. The “just go with the flow” camp seems to assume there’s useful information mixed in with the useless stuff.

Stowe Boyd is in the “go with the flow” camp. In a blog posting entitled Overload, Shmoverload he summarized points from a presentation he gave. You can see the presentation slides at his site, but he summarized his talking points and I found them interesting, but didn’t always agree. Here are some of his bullets labelled as “SB” (the ones I don’t mention I mostly agreed with) and my corresponding thoughts (“CR”).

Stowe Boyd: We don’t really know what attention is, despite all the mumbo-jumbo spouted …It may the several related cognitive centers, but at any rate, modern psychology/cognitive science hasn’t figured it out.

Craig Roth: He guessed right! I recommend anyone interested in the psychological aspects of attention look at Posner and Petersen’s paper (Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 1990. 13:25-42, “The Attention System of the Human Brain”). Their study of the how the brain processes attention found that the brain uses a network of anatomical areas. “The attention system of the brain is anatomically separate from the data processing systems … It interacts with other parts of the brain, but maintains its own identity.” It also found that separate subsystems are involved in maintaining attention, just as in the decentralized architecture model described previously. “It is neither the property of a single center, nor a general function of the brain operating as a whole … divide the attention system into subsystems that perform different but interrelated functions. (a) orienting to sensory events; (b) detecting signals for focal (conscious) processing; (c) maintaining a vigilant or alert state.”

SB: We are switching to a time in which the dominant mode will be flow, not focus.

CR: I’m not in the camp that says the huge amount of information now available is “bad”. I agree that we will adapt. But I don’t think a move away from focus is what will happen either. How did we adapt when the number of TV channels we received jumped from 3 to 150? We’ve learned to pick out (“focus on”) the programs we want to see and ignore the rest. Trying to absorb even a small portion of the flow of cable channels out there would render one senseless in short order.

SB: How do jugglers juggle? They don’t focus on the balls, the movements, or timing. They unfocus: it is a field of all three dimensions and their attention is distributed. Good jugglers can also sing or tell jokes while juggling. Unfocus.

CR: I think there’s a lesson here, but “unfocus” isn’t it. If you want to learn how to juggle, I don’t think unfocusing on what you’re doing will get you there. I think practicing a real lot until it’s pure motor memory is how you’d do it. I think the way jugglers juggle is to get their juggling down so well that they can do it without thinking. I’m guessing – I don’t juggle. But I do play guitar and I know that you have to get a song down pat before you can start watching the rest of the band and the audience and having fun with it. That doesn’t help much for enterprise attention management though since, as boring as being present in a conference call may be, I don’t think autonomic responses will help much.

SB: The New Balancing Act: “For the average person, linked in a dense, cascading social network of collaborators who depend on your timely response to critical events, it will prove increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to veer away from continuous partial attention. We will have to learn a new balancing act, and it will be strongly canted toward spending more cycles scanning the horizon and fewer looking down at the piecework in our laps”

CR: Good point. Narrowing your focus isn’t the way to be more valuable to your organization or achieve your information worker goals. To me, having feelers in the environment and good mechanisms for pulling the more important messages forward and pushing others further back (what I call “attentional technologies and capabilities”) is the key.



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  1. One distinction I think separates “good” and “bad” (or, at least, harmful) overload is the question of Queuing. Information that accumulates, as email does in an Inbox, and carries an expectation – explicit or implied – that you must read and disposition it all, is the worst kind. This is why “email overload” is a big problem, while “quantity of interesting books published” is not. You read new books as your time permits; you read email until it’s all done, even if it means forgoing your nights and weekends. The result is that even marginal email takes precedence over literary masterpieces…

  2. Agreed. I’ve agonized about new magazine subscriptions because, even if they are very cheap (and putting environmental concerns aside), I get stressed by seeing them piled up in the living room.

    There’s no punishment for not picking up a great new book (until you get to a cocktail party and wish you had read it), but you feel there is always punishment (piling up) for not reading something that is queuing.

    Cliff said it best on Cheers. When Cliff (the mailman) came in looking tired and beat and Norm asked “What’s up Cliffy?”, he just stared and said “It’s the mail. You pick it up, deliver it, but it just keeps on coming and coming. There’s no end…”

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