Louis Grey had a great post Thursday – Information Streams Accelerating the Attention Crisis – on something a growing number of people I respect are worrying about, like Tom Foremsky, and Hutch Carpenter.
This isn’t the old run-of-the-mill “information overload” issue people have been whinging about since Gutenberg started printing books, or since big honking “mini-computers” started spewing reams of paper reports back in the last century. It’s worse than that, much worse.
We all – or at least most of us – have made the transition from a world where you knew about most of the stuff you had to deal with on a day-to-day basis to a world where you don’t, you just know how to find it online. Hopefully.
And we all have our filter tricks in place – from only paying attention to certain people in Twitter, to using PostRank to filter down the raw flow of posts, to using Flipboard to see what people in our “social graph” consider noteworthy.
You might want to dismiss all this as just ever increasing noise. It’s not. We’re getting a huge growth in “signal” as well – people you want to know, things you need to know and do, stuff that matters to you. And that’s the problem Louis sees:

“Simply put, the total number of personally relevant pieces of content to consume each day is much higher than it was 1 year or 2 years ago, and will likely be 5 to 10 times higher 2 years down the road.
“We need to find ways to handle this deluge.”

Of course, the early adopters – like you and me – are feeling this faster and harder than the rest of the curve. I’ve noticed this year it’s increasingly hard to string together contiguous moments of attention (better known as thinking). That it’s increasingly hard to unplug email, my phone, twitter, IM because I will miss not just stuff I don’t care about, but people I do care about.
One more quote from Louis, because he says it so well:

“For those of us who are digitally connected and active, we are feeling this in acute fashion. Despite improved software tools to help us accomplish tasks, practically all of us feel we are busier than we were last year, and the year prior. We feel there are more tasks that need completing, and that we are actually falling further behind.”

Remember the old story about how Eskimos (Inuits) have 11 words for “snow”? The logic being, since they lived in a place defined by snow, being able to express the subtleties of different kinds of frozen water could make the difference between being safe and being dead.
While that’s an urban legend, the fact is we – early adopters, digital entrepreneurs, whatever you want to call us – don’t have good words to differentiate kinds of online information, tasks, todos, friends. We just keep marching through bigger and bigger drifts of online stuff, trying to get to where we’re going. Meanwhile, something is happening…
So how do you yell “avalanche!” in Inuit? And how are we going to cope with this?


    • Bob Walsh Reply

      Victor – exactly! And what do you do when that poverty of attention continues to head north? Allocation of attention efficiently starts to look like “efficiently” sinking of the Titanic. And if I or you dial back to say 2005, or 2000, or 1995 information levels, the personal cost not only is high today, but continues to climb.
      It’s not a pretty picture, but I appreciate your comment!

  1. Sub-heading from the linked Louis Gray piece:
    “There Is No Off Button. Ever”
    I succumb to the same temptations, but it’s usually more of a self control issue than an information filtering issue. The Off Button is the best information filter I know. 🙂

  2. Bob – ultimately, it means we have to choose what we’ll pay attention to. Since human attention is finite, and the information stream is, for all practical purposes, infinite, no one can gorge themselves on the information firehose indefinitely without suffering some negative effects on their cognition. This is what Nick Carr warns about when he refers to “the shallows.” Paul Graham also warned about this in an essay earlier this year, titled “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.” Nicholas Hebb points out above that “The Off Button is the best information filter I know.” Indeed.

  3. I find the key is to focus only on what really matters, and expect to ignore the rest. I think overall, the quantity of content has been increasing exponentially, but the overall quality has remained about the same. The key is to find the few places which really dish out quality content, and focus on that. Find the few relationships that really matter, and focus on those. The rest of the content and relationships may certainly be valuable, but perhaps not for you at this moment. Consider this – 20 years ago more books, newspaper articles, and magazine articles were being printed every year than anyone would reasonably read in a lifetime. How did we sort through all that material? Just because it is free online doesn’t change the fundamental dynamic of content to consumer which is, how do you value time? What deserves the most time in life?

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