Monday, July 06, 2009

Drowning In Information

My kids and their friends do not remember the days before the Internet. But it really wasn’t very long ago that the hippest people started adding an email address to their business cards. As email became more common, a weird business culture developed where the number of emails in a person’s in-box became some kind of status symbol.

Then came the days when everyone with an email account ended up with overflowing in-boxes. That’s when the rest of us realized that most email is superfluous garbage, and that having a lot of unread email is simply a sign of poor personal management skills. Some people haven’t gotten the memo yet. They apparently can’t read their colleague’s eye-rolling body language when the martyr’s sigh of unread email is uttered.

I still know people that feel duty bound to pore over every single piece of electronic junk that survives the filtering process to arrive in their in-box. The number of hours these people spend watching soaring PowerPoint presentations is truly mind boggling. But that’s nothing compared to the time they spend taking in and forwarding the ever proliferating incredible hoaxes that can’t withstand two seconds of thoughtful scrutiny.

Many in the sub-25 generation can’t understand why ‘old’ people are still so reliant on email. They continue to use the mature technology of cell phone texting while they simultaneously use Facebook and Twitter. But they see these technologies as THEIR domain.

One of my teenagers complained that it was “creepy” when a middle age neighbor added him as a friend on Facebook. It’s one thing to have a parent connection on Facebook, he said, but “old people” should otherwise stay off.

But another son dislikes Twitter’s logo. He thinks it kind of looks like a guy sitting on the can reading the newspaper.

We are becoming a society of the continuously connected. Some boys freaked out at a recent meeting when the scoutmaster told them that there would be no cell phones allowed at Boy Scout camp. (It’s OK. There’s no coverage up there anyway.) Many of these boys are simply imitating their parents.

We suffer from information overload, says WSJ tech editorialist L. Gordon Crovitz. He asks, “What does it mean that for the first time, information is no longer scarce?” Some complain that we have lost depth as the breadth of information access has increased. “The current trend” says economist Tyler Cowen, “as it has been running for decades -- is that a lot of our culture is coming in shorter and smaller bits.” That explains why today’s newspaper contains only a fraction of the content the same paper contained 30 years ago.

“Humans adapt” writes Crovitz, “so we'll learn how to live with information overabundance.” Tools are already developing for this purpose. As is usually the case with new technologies, the young will be the first to become adept at judiciously using such tools, he says.

The image of an older fellow struggling to swim in heavy waves comes to mind. As the man fights to keep his head above water, an agile teenager rips by on a surfboard being propelled forward by the very waves that are threatening to take the man down.

Actually, I much more optimistic about information management than that. Glub … bubble ….

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