If you have been following this blog for a while, you know that I'm skeptic when it comes to an evaluation of assets and drawbacks of the new online connectivity as to whether it is the assets that weigh more. The bottomline of my posts most often is of the form: Change happens somehow, we'll have to figure out whether it's a change for better and if not, readjust it. (If you memorize this sentence, you'll pretty much get the essence of everything I write). The big question is whether there can be change that hinders its own readjustment which in my post Cast Away I referred to as the 'Fiesta-Feature' - the problem you cause when putting the keys in the trunk that will lock on close.
One of the problems I have been writing about is Information Overload:
“[I]nformation overload is not only caused by the sheer volume of information, but also because of the complexity or confusing structure of information that might overtax the user’s cognitive skill to focus on relevant information ... Therefore Helmersen et al. (p. 2) characterize information overload as “difficulties in locating, retrieving, processing, storing and/or reretrieving information due to the volume of available information.” Information overload may lead to stress, health problems, frustration, disillusionment, depression, as well as impaired judgment and bad decision making ... From an ethical perspective, these consequences of information overload are problematic, because they undermine several basic principles, especially the requirement of participants’ autonomy/self-determination and the nonmaleficence principle.”
Behr, Nosper, Klimmt & Hartmann (2005) Some Practical Considerations of Ethical Issues in Virtual Reality Research, Presence Teleoperators & Virtual Environments 14:6, 668 (2005).
In my post The Spirits That We Called we've been discussing some secondary problems caused by the fact that information people indeed process isn't just what is available, but what is cheaply available. Faced with an overabundance of information, this potential input has to be filtered somehow, and ideally so without much effort - this is what eventually determines what is most likely to be read by many people. This cheapness is becoming more and more important, esp. for our political systems, and is unfortunately a factor that can easily be influenced with money and power. So much about democracy.
Either way, another question that I've raised in the post Can Technology Make us happy? is the conflict of short-term pleasures with long-term happiness. This is pretty much a problem of addiction (though not necessarily in the clinical sense), may that be to TV, online games, constant email checking, or blogging. The question is whether and how such developments will be corrected.
Especially when it comes to email, this is by now a fairly well documented one, as you can see e.g. from the quote about information overflow above, and companies are starting to draw conclusions from that. Among others, Loblaw, U.S. Cellular Corp (via Daily Commercial News) and Intel introduced the E-mail free Friday (via USA Today). Also the Departments of the Canadian government have urged their employees to turn off BlackBerries over night.
The Globe and Mail recently wrote in an article titled No e-mails, please. I'm trying to work
"But now there's a growing awareness that these technological tools can distract us from our work, filling our days with interruptions that, while work-related, prevent us from thinking carefully for any unbroken stretch of time.
That's one reason why companies such as Loblaw, Intel Corp. and U.S. Cellular Corp. are enforcing e-mail-free days, or restricting BlackBerry use in the office.
Others set aside time for creative thinking: Google Inc.'s 20-per-cent rule allows engineers to spend one day a week working on ideas that aren't in their job description. Gmail and Google News both grew out of ideas conceived during 20-per-cent time."
The reason why self-correction works in this case has, unsurprisingly, a priori nothing to do with happiness but with profit. Constantly checking email can be a productivity killer, which is why a small but growing number of companies are trying to do something about it.
It is in this regard very interesting that I read today in the NYT
Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast
Some of the biggest technology firms, including Microsoft, Intel, Google and I.B.M., are banding together to fight information overload. Last week they formed a nonprofit group to study the problem, publicize it and devise ways to help workers — theirs and others — cope with the digital deluge.
The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according to Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work.
Companies are also realizing that there is money to be made in helping people reduce their digital gluttony. Major corporations around the world are searching for ways to keep software tools from becoming distractions, said John Tang, a researcher at I.B.M., who is a member of the new group."
For me, the big question is though how long will it take for academic non-profit organizations to realize the processing capacity of the human brain is finite. Unfortunately, instant email reply and reliance on being read is a peer-enforced group problem that is very unlikely going to be solved on the individual level.
TAGS: INFORMATION OVERLOAD, FIESTA FEATURE, EMAIL