Texting and driving has become one of the perils of our time. But this is too much:
Yes, that’s my son, not even two years old. He decided that driving his push truck wasn’t stimulating enough, so he took my aunt’s smart phone and began typing away while pushing himself around the basement. I guess it starts early.
Interesting side note: at 21 months, his fingers are actually the perfect size for those little keys!
I’d like to draw your attention to two attention management-related posts I put up on the Gartner Blogging Network:
First is Please Stop Blaming Everything on Information Overload. It describes how I’m getting tired of the word “overload” being applied to everything in IT, such as this example from Thomas Claburn in the InformationWeek Google blog: “Expect to see more App Stores because aggregation is a necessary defense against information overload.” I try to assist organizations address attention management, and “information overload” abuse does not help.
Second is EAM Meets Social Software. Information overload coverage is predominantly about e-mail. That’s understandable – it’s where the message pipe into information workers’ brains tends to be at fire hose levels, threatening to fill their heads like balloons. But I’ve started to get questions on how social software will add to the overload and gave my thoughts and some ways to mitigate the risks in the posting.
I posted previously on Clay Shirkey’s assertion that there is no information overload, just filter failure. I pointed out that filtering is only half of the attention management picture (pulling information forward is the other part).
But Nathan Zeldes did a much more detailed rebuttal – and more insightful I’d say. It’s called Yes it IS Information Overload, Clay Shirky, not only Filter Failure:
The Black Death was caused by flea-carrying rats; yet no one would say “It wasn’t a terrible plague, it was a pest-control failure”. It was a very real plague caused by failure to kill the rats; and Information Overload is a very real problem caused (in part) by Filter Failure.
It is not that there’s a lot of information; it is that there’s a lot more information that we are expected to read than we have time to read it in … And this is why Email Overload is a problem and RSS feed overload is much less so: there is an expectation (express or implied) that you must go through all the mail in your Inbox; there is no such expectation for an RSS reader.
Larry Cannell pointed me to a good posting by Daniel Tunkelang called “You Can’t Hurry Relevance“. Mr. Tunkelang obviously believes in the idea of attention management. I especially like the way he states the holy grail of attention management: a system that understands what is important to the user and dispositions messages accordingly. Well, I’ll let his own words shine here:
As an information consumer, I’d appreciate an interface that explicitly and transparently adapts to my priorities, and that manages interruption of my workflow accordingly
Here’s what I commented back on his entry regarding the statement above:
There will not be one tangible “thing” that manages interruptions based on priorities. But there will be a collection of technologies and capabilities that, taken together, can be used to manage attention. I call this collection of technologies and capabilities that manage attention the Enterprise Attention Management conceptual architecture. I posted this architectural model on the KnowledgeForward blog in 2006. You can find it here:
Since it is not one, purpose-built, tightly integrated set of pieces, it takes a walk-through to apply it to any particular problem. The problem you mention in this posting is e-mail, and you’ve provided 3 good suggestions on how to take advantage of urgency. I applied the EAM model to e-mail as an example and yielded 15 examples where technology could help, many of which are indeed available in some e-mail systems (although often buried or cludgy). You can see my list and how the EAM architecture helped derive it here:
I really like your thought that urgency should be taken into account in the e-mail process. You have some good ideas for the receiving end of e-mail. I still wouldn’t give up on the sender’s side too. When sending letters and packages, people don’t mind picking between a number of options (ground, express, signature required, etc.) that indicate urgency. If we can do a bit of behavior change (or possible force people via a token system), it’s interesting to think about how much e-mail could be improved. Easier said than done though.
Jacob Ukelson of Actionbase recently had some good comments on my posting “Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation“:
Clay Shirky’s take on it is that the information overload problem (at least as it pertains to email) is an email filtering problem, not an information overload problem. His video can be seen here:
I hadn’t seen that video before, so I watched it and think it’s very good. In particular, the parts that stuck with me from Clay’s presentation were:
- We’ve lost our filter for quality. It used to be book publishers. Not anymore. So how will we now design the filters (rather than thinking about how to control the flow of content from the source)?
- Solutions are temporary and need to be continually adapted
- He applied a great quote to information overload. It’s from Yitzak Rabin: “If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem – it’s a fact.”
- When you think about information overload, think instead about what changed – where the filter broke
I think he’s half right with his thesis. Defining information overload as a filter issue captures half the problem according to my Enterprise Attention Management model. It captures the “pushing information back” (attention shielding) part, but not the “pulling information forward” part. Unless he means the filter is applied in both directions, which didn’t come out in this speech.
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.
I’ve noticed much that’s written about information overload starts from an assumption that a root cause of the problem is with humankind (or a particular sub-species known as “information workers” that lives in fuzzy cubes and whitewashed caves) and its inability to adjust to the rapid increase in content. This type of argument is known as evolutionary psychology. And it has proven to provide overly simplistic answers to behavioral questions. The WSJ article “Evolutionary Psych May Not Help Explain Our Behavior After All” referred to the book “Adapting Minds” and stated that “as Prof. Buller, a professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, dug deeper, he concluded that the claims of evo psych are ‘wrong in almost every detail’ because the data underlying them are deeply flawed.”
Information overload also adds the idea of evolutionary maladaptation, even though I haven’t seen that term used explicitly. But that’s clearly the argument being used – that the response of information workers to the proliferation of information is an evolutionary maladaptation, like that of humans being designed to seek and store fat to prepare for times of famine that never come in the developed world. The evolutionary maladaptation assumption silently underlies many of the studies, articles, and books related to information overload, e-mail overload, dangerous multi-tasking, and information stress.
But maybe it’s not true. And that matters because it changes where one looks for solutions.
If you believe information overload is a maladaptation than solutions – fancy and detailed as they may be – really just boil down to resisting destructive urges. Or, as Lee Gomes of the WSJ worded it “I don’t have much to offer in the way of solutions, save to nag everyone about steely self-discipline.” If this is an example of humans being wired for self-destructive behavior, then it leads to lots of “protect you from yourself” advice.
But if, by chance, information overload is within the realm of consciousness and under rational control, different solutions apply. Process change becomes feasible since people can be be told what to do and have as much chance as any other process change of succeeding. No subconscious, caveman instinct (“Ugh, more information always good! May help me kill sabre tooth tiger or mate with woman!”) will get in the way of altering people’s behavior. Providing technology that enables new functionality (not just for putting blinders on you, locking you out, etc.) has a chance of working too.
I don’t have the definitive answer, and I’m not sure there is one. But I do think that the same answers to “the information overload problem” (in quotes since I take a different angle on the issue) keep popping up because the same evolutionary maladaptation assumption is used. Trying a different assumption – one that puts the issue within the realm of higher reason to manage – can yield some different answers that should be explored.
Tom Davenport’s “The Attention Economy” is the best information overload/attention management book I’ve read so far (despite several flaws). For that reason alone I avoided obvious, snarky rebuttal titles for this blog post such as “Why We Don’t Care What Davenport Thinks About Information Overload” or just “Why We Don’t Care About Tom Davenport”.
But I don’t agree with his posting yesterday about “Why We Don’t Care About Information Overload“. Like a good writer, he summarizes his point best at the end:
the next time you hear someone talking or read someone writing about information overload, save your own attention and tune that person out. Nobody’s ever going to do anything about this so-called problem, so don’t overload your own brain by wrestling with the issue.
I’m guessing his goal was to agitate and get people thinking by presenting a stark point of view. He succeeded. His post brings up a number of issues
I too have written that there are often better things to focus on than information overload, such as attention management in general. “How should I make the most of the ever-increasing amount of information at my fingertips?” is the correct, attention management question to ask. Not “How do I reduce information overload?” or “How do I deal with the avalanche …”.
But I have also written in opposition to the nihilism that Mr. Davenport presents here and that is frequent in the hand-wringing treatises of the information overload crowd. There are key people in any organization that can take real action that improves the information abilities of many information workers.
He also makes the point that people won’t take the time to tune their information channels:
We could if we wanted to. How many of us bother to tune our spam filters? How many of us turn off the little evanescent window in Outlook that tells us we have a new email? Who signs off of social media because there’s just too much junk? Who turns off their BlackBerry or iPhone in meetings to ensure no distractions? Nobody, that’s who — or very few souls anyway.
In the presentations I’ve given on this topic, I devote a slide to this question and make the point that people will act when the cost of action exceeds the price of inaction. That may take a while, but if people are indeed annoyed enough they’ll figure out how to do something. And here’s my post on how to turn off the new email window in Outlook.
A final quibble: While attacking information overload, he adopts the same guru-tense “we” that his targets use. I’m not sure why so many people on both sides of this issue feel the need to speak for all of society when they talk (as I mentioned here). Do “we” care about information overload? Speak for yourself or those you know, but it is inappropriate to imply “it’s all of us (we) against just you”.
There are some good comments to his posting. One accuses him of misstating the audience member’s question so he could rant about information overload. Funny, but, if true, all too common. Once someone has a rant, it’s hard not to twist topics to hit it.
Another commenter (Lonny Eachus) wrote “Information overload is not spam. Spam is spam. Information overload, as it has been defined for decades now, is simply the vast amount of information that you have to deal with, in order to be successful in today’s world. It has little or nothing to do with spam.” I have studied this field for quite a while and haven’t actually heard that redefinition of information overload. I can see a slippery slope with the redefinition in that the large proportion of that vast information that doesn’t lead to action or insight can be defined as a kind of spam, so it’s turtles all the way down. Besides, I’ll let Basex and the Information Overload Research Group define information overload, which certainly does include interruptions, banal messages (if not spam), and other messages that get in the way of insight.
Do you want an aurally pristine environment while flying on your next trip? One where you can press a few buttons and silence all distractions from the outside world so you can focus on your laptop in uninterrupted peace? No, it’s not first class. It’s the cockpit.
Some attention management analysis seems to be needed in cockpits these days. I wrote previously about the danger of distracted driving, as demonstrated in a series of articles in the New York Times. But how could I overlook the dangers of distracted flying?
The Wall St. Journal reports today “Laptops Cited for Pilot Inattention“. The Journal reports “they were poring over their personal laptops in the cockpit while frantic air-traffic controllers were trying to establish contact.” Furthermore “according to some pilots, members of other crews have even been known to play DVDs on laptops in the cockpit to pass the time on particularly long overwater and international flights.”
Personally, I have mixed results working on my laptop on flights. And even if I have headphones on, I’m constantly distracted by various dinging and overly loud announcements on the speakers. But now I’m being told that pilots work in an aurally pristine environment? It must be nice, far from the roaring engines, no cart bashing their elbows, no crying babies, no smelly sandwiches being opened nearby, no seatbacks in their face, the only snoring coming from your co-pilot (actually, I’m in favor of controlled napping to shift alertness to critical maneuvering times). I’m rather jealous. And surprised that critical alerts and audio from all sources can seemingly be shut off with a volume knob or taking off their headsets.
My enterprise attention management conceptual architecture describes the concept of channel switching in positive terms – that rules and routing can be used to redirect messages from the channel their sender intended to better fit the needs of the recipient. But it also seems that channel switching was part of the flight 188 mishap. The pilots were distracted right as a message was sent to switch the communication channel. After missing it, presumably they weren’t hearing traffic control. I’m amazed that a message is sent that communication will now switch to another channel and, without receiving confirmation from the listener, all communication now switches. Perhaps waiting for a “roger that” is not part of the protocol for flight control messages such as “everything I now say to you for the rest of the flight will now be on another channel. I hope you were listening to that. Bye.”
Obviously there’s a lot I don’t know about flying, and the situation here. In fact, there’s a lot the authorities can’t tell about this situation either. But as someone who puts on a lot of flight miles and studies attention management and interruption science, the things I’m hearing don’t give me a lot of confidence.
Great article in the New York Times about distracted drivers: “At 60 M.P.H., Office Work Is High Risk” (part of an ongoing series). I’ve shown a bit of skepticism in past entries about the extent of the cost of interruptions for information workers and the intractability of the problem. I’ve said many of the interruptions fall into models that are either a net positive for the organization with closed-loop analysis, required by social contract, or better classified as social interactions and distractions.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t think distractions are a major issue. Just that the cost, causes, and solutions are different for interruptions and distractions so it’s best not to blend them together. For example, the messaging inbox is the most classic information worker distraction, but it can be dealt with by turning off toasts (for wired workers) or mobile devices.
I have also assumed that the task one is being distracted from is important, but not life critical such as performing surgery, disarming a bomb, sneaking up on an insurgent safehouse … or driving. Distracted drivers are, in my opinion, a serious issue.
I think this issue decomposes into several parts and the NYT article is the first I’ve seen that does a good job of addressing most of them:
Shaking and shaming users: The ‘ol shake&shame is a one-two punch. Start with horrifying anecdotes, articles, stats, and videos on how bad your behavior is without you knowing it. Then follow with shaming by describing how inconsiderate these drivers are, how dumb it is (if it’s an editorial), how you’re not that important that you need to respond immediately, and end with its effects on the people and family of those injured or killed.
Legal: Can you successfully outlaw texting while driving? It’s symbolic and, like seat belt laws, something that adds a slight risk of penalty after the fact if something happens (like tracing text messages to a conductor seconds before a crash). Hey, it’s worth a shot for those extreme cases when something tragic results.
Psychological: How distractable are people? Can they really multi-task? Is it an addiction, ADHD, etc? It certainly seems to me the majority of SUVs veering into my lane, driving real slow and then making a quick move, or running red lights slowly are on a mobile device. And the research confirms my suspicions that technology like handsfree interfaces don’t solve the problem. And while I think multi-tasking can work for information workers with coarsely grained, long-running tasks, I think it’s deadly for drivers. There’s a fun game to test this at the NYT site.
Expectations: To what extent do the expectations of employers, customers, family, and other message senders drive the apparent need to respond immediately? To what extent does an expectation of productivity later require culling messages now? This is the part I’ve spent the most time thinking about and the NYT article finally sheds some light on. No employer admits to requiring these responses (duh), but the plumber example shows how competitive pressure provides informal expectations. I was in a cab going home from the airport on Friday and the taxi computer had popped up that a van was needed in zone 776. My driver, since we were in a van, spent the next 10 minutes trying to rapidly respond to accept the pickup. One time we came close enough to rear-ending another car that I was bug-eyed for a few seconds. It seems the computer was smart enough to not allow him to claim the pickup for some reason, whether it’s because we were moving or the GPS noticed we were too far for him to promise a pickup (which would explain why my taxis always take twice as long as promised to arrive for pickups).
Success at getting people to stop texting while driving will depend more on managing the expectations of message senders for quick responses than it will on shaking&shaming, laws, or better research. This goal is difficult to impossible depending on each situation. “Feeling important” may be solvable with shaking&shaming, but for the plumber or taxi driver whose livelihood depends on picking up a job before the next guy gets it will be nearly impossible to reach.
Still, there may be some hope if the Domino’s Pizza example applies. Domino’s advertising set an expectation for 30 minute delivery, but some large settlements for accidents prompted them to water down the expectation (to “satisfaction guaranteed”). I haven’t seen statistics on whether the settlements have decreased, but the goal was certainly that eliminating the expectation would eliminate the reckless driving behavior it caused. Over time the same may occur to some extent with distracted driving. For example, if a plumbing company anywhere in the US has to pay a multi-million dollar settlement and it goes viral on the news, you could see plumbing companies change their process to round-robin assignments or select randomly from all responses within the next 2 hours.