Evolutionary Maladaptation: 2 Days

February 13, 2010 at 11:18 pm | Posted in Attention Management, Fun, Information Work | Leave a comment

I’d like to lay claim to control over the Wall St. Journal’s editorial page, remarkable prescience, or the luck of the Irish.  I’ll take any of those 3 I can get.  My claim is based on my February 10th blog posting “Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation” and a WSJ editorial just 2 days later by Daniel Akst’s called “The iPad Could Drive Readers to Distraction“.  His article pretty much falls for every canard I warned about two days earlier, including the use of the exact same humorous caveman example.

Well, in case anyone thought I was putting words into hypothetical mouths on the 10th, Mr. Akst kindly decided to blatantly state the points I was disputing:

  • Roth: “I’ve noticed much that’s written about information overload starts from an assumption that a root cause of the problem is with humankind …”
  • Akst: “Distractibility, sad to say, is the human condition …”


  • Roth: “… the argument being used [is] that the response of information workers to the proliferation of information is an evolutionary maladaptation …”
  • Akst: “Distractibility … probably evolved at a time when … it was a survival adaptation. “


  • Roth: ““Ugh, more information always good! May help me kill sabre tooth tiger or mate with woman!”
  • Akst: “hey, is that a tiger?!”

My point was that I’d like to see more searching for creative solutions.  Arguing that sometimes we can’t help checking email or browsing fun sites when we should be working is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Of course that happens.  But is that always or only the case?  The “steely self-discipline” bandwagon is already full of bright people doing what they can to make a difference.  Mr. Akst’s article demonstrates the over-worn path his argument leads down.  I wrote that “If this is an example of humans being wired for self-destructive behavior, then it leads to lots of ‘protect you from yourself’ advice.”  And sure enough, his article gives a quick survey of software to “bar yourself from the Internet” or programs to “prevent yourself from wasting half your work day surfing celebrity gossip blogs”.

But isn’t there more to this issue?  Can’t questioning a few overly used assumptions yield some new avenues of exploration?  If one assumes that information overload is within the realm of consciousness and under rational control, different solutions can apply. Take a favorite culprit: e-mail.  Assuming e-mail overload is due to evolutionary maladaptation leads to half-jesting self-discipline solutions like Google’s “Take a break” feature.  But if you get past that and consider that users can apply rational responses, you can find many tweaks that get beyond pop-psychology and have a chance of making a real difference (see my posting “E-mail Overload: No Cure, but Enterprise Attention Management Can Shed Some Light“).

All it takes is to stop blaming our cavemen ancestors and start blaming ourselves.


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